Subvertising: The Re-emergence of Political Graffiti on the Parisian Underground

Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

It's a modern-day, consciousnesses-raising revolution! Government funded, non-profit organisations stage anti-advertising raids, trashing idols of consumerism in the Parisian métropolitan transport system.

Elsewhere, this poster can be seen with far more invasive and graphic graffiti. In one particular instance one could almost say that the girl in the advert has been verbally mutilated to the point that a sheet of white paper has been placed across her knickers. This was undoubtedly done by the RATP, the company that runs the trains on the Paris underground, in cooperation with Métrobus. It is a technique they seem to use to cover up what they deem to be particularly offensive graffiti, though it is in vain as it provides the militants quite literally with a blank canvas.

In this specific example we can still see a black cross over the price of the bra, a capital "NON" sprayed across the girl's stomach, below the advertiser's slogan we read "and all for what?", and below the price of the bra we are told that this is "passive soliciting". Notably, though, to the right of the photograph we can read: "Ni Pubs Ni Soumises!", which roughly translates as "no adverts no submission" but is a direct reference to the relatively new feminist group in France called "Ni Putes Ni Soumises" — "neither whores nor submissive". This is an appropriation of feminist politics against what could undoubtedly be viewed if not as a sexist advert, at least as one portraying a young lady that appears to be selling herself. The ambivalent nature of the slogan seems to underline this and raises a rather succinct question from one militant: "and what will she do for 40 euros?" The semantic shift in "Ni Pub Ni Soumises" means that it has also been used on adverts that implicitly target the female consumer such as those for supermarkets.

Photo by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

There are also attacks on adverts promoting public institutions. Not forgetting that France has the best health service in the world and one of the best social security systems, the essential problem appears to be that the republic is setting out to make us feel guilty by using an essentially capitalist medium. Last winter, one particular advertising campaign promoted an emergency phone number which members of the public could phone if they came across a homeless person in distress. The posters starkly depicted a thermometer showing the temperature as being below -115°C (115 being the phone number in question), and underneath the thermometer the slogan simply read "Help the homeless by calling (free phone) 115". The posters also carried the stamp of the French republic: a flag bearing the head of Marianne and the State's own promotional catchphrase Liberté, Egalté, Fraternité.

You may wonder why socially-minded militants would want to attack such an apparent good cause. The graffiti here was deploring the fact that the government is not investing more money into helping the homeless, too interested as it is in making us feel guilty whilst they are making money. In one occurrence, one could read to the right of the thermometer: "Culpabilisons nous pour déculpabiliser l'économie du profit" — "making us feel guilty lets profiteering off the hook". Below the thermometer, had been added "stop misery, destroy the oligarchy", whilst in the bottom right-hand corner the French Republic, both as the Nation-State and as a people, was asked what it was doing: "République Française que fais-tu? Que faisons nous?". This outwardly-pointing and yet self-reflexive comment is symptomatic of an understanding that consumerism exists because we are all consumers and not just because of manufacturers. Too often we find ourselves locked within a reversed logic: today, supply may well create demand, but it is still true that without demand there would be little supply.

The anti-pub message is also to be found expressed in extreme, not to say extremist ways. An advert promoting holidays in Hong Kong picturing a skyscraper skyline was subverted through allusions to 11 September 2001.

Photo by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

On other occasions the capitalist double whammy of an exotic holiday in a location representative of the world market is subverted through the subversion of a global sports brand whereby the "Stop It" above is replaced by "Just Do It". Though this may seem quite shocking, let us not forget that one of the chief premises of this anti-advertising "movement" is that it is made up of solely autonomously acting individuals (who obviously don't wear trainers). There are no rules, no regulations and therefore there is no censorship. In fact, just as the evolution of advertising itself seems to testify, the anti-advertising message may well need to be more and more radical to put its message across. Though we may be on dodgy territory, such is the very nature of subversion. The rest of the graffiti asks for the RMI (the state's minimum monthly unemployment allowance) to be raised to the amount of money the holiday in Hong Kong actually costs.

As middle-class and liberally educated people, we would probably posit that what we have here is some sort of mise-en-abîme of "advertising terrorism" and "pacifist terrorism". But the militants are one step ahead of us fully understanding the not always subtle nature of their actions. One particular advertising space that is now advert-free bears the following scribbled message: "tearing down advertising may not always be clever, but it's the only weapon we have as pacifist terrorists . . . and it's a laugh and it keeps us busy".

This would suggest that the didactic aims of the French supermarket chain Carrefour's advertising campaign has fallen on deaf ears. Their posters, devoid of any illustrations, simply carried the following text: "Taking greater care over what we consume is becoming more and more important in our lives. Our purchasing power, our health, or our environment, are also dependent upon what we put in our shopping trolleys. Better consumption is Carrefour's new programme so that consumerism is a means of progress for everybody. Consume better, it's urgent" (my translation). The graffitied version just sees one word crossed out so that the concluding message becomes "Consume better, it's urgent". Of course, the real message remains: indiscriminate consumerism is of the utmost urgency.

You may wonder why I have waited this long to write about these events. When I discovered the Pixies in 1987/8 we were only a handful of garage-band geeks to realise what was happening whilst our Sixth Form common room was dominated by pseudo-hippie surfheads (let me remind you that I grew up in a small South-East England seaside resort called Eastbourne — the beaches are pebbled and the Channel isn't best known for its tubes). At the Pixies gig last June most of those around me were too busy trying to learn how to talk in 1988 to try and understand why four Americans were shouting at them alternately in English and Spanish. Nevertheless, whether through the acquirement of taste or an ingenious use of the media (probably a bit of both), this crowd of booing-at-advertising teenagers had lifted the most subversive band of my youth and placed it on the stage of mainstream precisely by venerating their once subversive nature (though one could easily argue that this tour is all about the band commoditising itself — but hey! don't touch the Pixies).

On the 31st May, the supermarket chain E. Leclerc launched their new advertising campaign in the metro: standard posters that appear to have been graffitied. It is not simply a case of crossed out prices, the images appear to borrow exactly the same codes as those adopted by the anti-advertising militants. The only difference being that instead of choosing your child's education over a holiday, the message now clearly expresses the possibility of doing both if you shop with them. However, the general feeling among militants is that E. Leclerc really does believe people to be stupid as this subversion testifies:

Photo by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

Speaker N°1: People are so stupid.
Speaker N°2: So true.

What seems important to underline is that this anti-advertising militancy is a symptomatic manifestation of those who are anti-globalisation or rather those who are pro alter-mondialisation. The alter-mondialists are not against the idea of McLuhan's global village, indeed their eco-system of predilection appears to be the internet. But they do stand against the globalisation of trade as it exists believing it to be undemocratic as well as allowing the wealthy members of the WTO to create their own monopolies notably by allowing companies to exploit Third World workers. However, let me polemical for just a minute if I may, by suggesting that attacking the world of advertising is attacking the delicate balance that allows the competitive market to remain, tentatively I grant you, competitive. The public space in part survives thanks to consensual economics, in the widest definition of the term, where several different players are given the chance to voice themselves. An active engagement to subtract the economics from the public space will only allow the strongest to survive, the likes of Microsoft and MacDonalds, precisely those against whom the alter-mondialists are crying out so vehemently. Even the wilful destruction of advertising billboards could be seen as one of the many different guises of censorship. It's just a thought.

But what of the "tagueurs"? What has become of those "artists" whose vocation in life has been to tag their names in as many different places as possible in a dog-like territory-marking fashion? Well, initially there were the beginnings of a turf war when the "tagueurs" began spray-painting over the militant graffiti, only to find their graffiti painted over by the militants. Now, though, there seems to be a truce. For the time being . . .

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