At the recent United Nations climate talks in Paris, some unexpected advertising showed up around the city, mostly in the form of transit posters. “We’re sorry we got caught,” read one ad with a VW logo and tagline at the bottom. “Now that we’ve been caught we’re trying to make you think we care about the environment,” read the copy below the headline. VW was a corporate sponsor of the climate conference. But the ad was a parody that mocked VW for supporting environmentalism after having just been scandalized for illegally programming their cars to cheat on emissions tests. Other global brands were targeted in this particular effort, including Air France and heads of state like David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama.
The ads were the handiwork of an organization calling itself Brandalism. Originating in the UK, they are a well-organized and well-funded group that has a particular issue with out-of-home advertising, the kind you see on billboards and at transit stops. The “about” page of their website describes their mission in this way, “Our interventions are a rebellion against the visual assault of media giants and advertising moguls who have a stranglehold over messages and meaning in our public spaces, through which they force-feed us with images and messages to keep us insecure, unhappy, and shopping.” The folks at Brandalism feel that outdoor advertising is unavoidable (can’t turn the page or flip the channel, they explain in a video) and, therefore, an affront to society. Of course, it is also the easiest form of advertising to subvert because it is static and accessible, but let’s not quibble over tactics here.
So, what’s the damage? Replacing 600 posters for a short time in a city with millions of marketing messages is not likely to have lasting effects on the brands that they target. But Brandalism knows that the real value of what they do isn’t the relative handful of people who actually see their work in person, it’s the millions more they can show it to if the act goes viral and, ideally, if it makes it to the mainstream media, which did happen with their Paris effort. Brandalism is adept at using video, social media and high-quality parody to kindle social outrage. In some cases, they can build a big enough fire to get noticed. But it seems that the medium is the real target for them, and pummeling brands just provides the content. The brands they attack change each time and many messages don’t mock a brand at all, but instead question social choices and values in general. Brands like VW should be thankful for this shifting focus, since the Brandalism folks look like they could be a royal pain.
Some brand vandalism is not so indiscriminate. P&G was hounded for decades by a nonsense rumor that their man-in-the-moon logo was connected with devil worship. And, closer to home, the Shady Maple Smorgasbord in Lancaster County has had to defend its brand’s integrity against the accusation that they refuse to serve people in uniform. The tale has survived for years that, because of the owners’ pacifist beliefs, they refuse to serve members of the military. The accusation is untrue, but persistent enough that Shady Maple has felt compelled to put a link on their home page explaining that they are happy to serve any member of the armed forces.
In the late 1980s, Corona beer was victimized by a rumor that Mexican workers were urinating in the beer at the manufacturing plant. Corona was able to trace the rumor back to a specific Heineken distributor in Reno, Nevada, that subsequently agreed to admit publically that allegations were untrue, as part of a lawsuit settlement. In this case, a competitor had vandalized the Corona brand, but it was a rare example of actually being caught. Still, Corona spent more than a million dollars in a public relations push and other damage control to put the rumor to rest, in order to rebuild its lost market share.
While brand vandalism has been around for a long time, the creation of a brand that celebrates it, Brandalism, shows how much more effective it can be with the advent of social media and other digital tools to amplify its outrage. Big brands are the most likely targets and have the tools to defend themselves, but, as Shady Maple knows, even small brands can be the victim of one angry person with a laptop.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.