Q&A: Anti-Advertising Agency CEO Steve Lambert

Posted by Rob Walker on May 22, 2007
Posted Under: Anti,Q&A,Semiotic Disobedience

The mission of The Anti-Advertising Agency is rather strongly suggested by its name. But to be a bit more specific, it is funded by a grant from the Creative Work Fund, and “co-opts the tools and structures used by the advertising and public relations industries. Our work calls into question the purpose and effects of advertising in public space.”

Past AAA projects have included a collaboration with Graffiti Research Lab called Light Criticism (an idea that might politely be described as the inspiration for the Boston Adult Swim marketing campaign that kicked up such a fuss a few months back) and, with Amanda Eicher, PeopleProducts123, the shopdropping workshops mentioned earlier on this site.

The AAA’s CEO is artist Steve Lambert (visitsteve.com), who was most recently in the news for a project he’s developing at Eyebeam called AddArt, “an extension for the Firefox browser which removes advertising and replaces it with art.” Mr. Lambert graciously agreed to answer a few Murketing Qs. Those, and his As, follow.

Q: Of the various projects the Anti-Advertising Agency has been involved in, which ones do you think have been most successful?

A: I don’t really know for sure. To know we would have to do what is done in any marketing campaign, which is an impartial evaluation — surveys, testing, etc. And we don’t have the budget for that. I can track some things empirically, like web hits, and I can hang out near where projects are installed and gauge reactions.

But then, what is success? Our goal is rather tough to measure — to cause the public to re-examine advertising and the role it plays in public space. But I think we reach that goal with anyone who spends more than a moment looking at our work. It’s some measure of success if they look at it at all. And if they do, how much do they take away? This is what I dwell on when I think of “success.”

The image I often have in my head is of the Trans-Theoretical (Stages of Change) model. I won’t go into it too much, but basically the idea is that everyone has to move through certain steps to change their behaviors — and you can’t skip steps. For example, you can’t adopt a new behavior without first being aware that there is an alternative to what you are currently doing. Once you are aware, you need information on how to change that behavior. Once you have the information, you need motivation to start. Those that have adopted the behavior need support in maintaining it. And on and on.

So part of the measure of success for me is not just how many people saw this, but did I move them along on a step? Did this piece really make a difference in this person’s life? Did it have a profound effect on their thinking? Did it change their perspective on the world? Will it change their behavior in the future?

It’s an incredibly unforgiving way of measuring success, especially for an artist, but keeping it in mind from the beginning makes for more effective work.

To answer your question in a less philosophical way, the Light Criticism project was by far the most successful in terms of numbers. Tens of thousands of people saw that video in a matter of a week. Easily over 100,000 saw it in the first 2 weeks. It seemed to resonate — people understood the concept of advertising as blight, and we provided more info on illegal advertising. I got emails and comments so I know that people moved along those steps in their thinking because I have this first-hand evidence. It still gets the most traffic to our site.

As far as the shopdropping workshops go, it’s a more in-depth exchange. There are conversations and interactions and participation! More than that, there is an experience. People actually go out into the world as individuals and leave their mark. As small as it is, it’s an empowering experience — one most people haven’t had. They do more than see the work, nod and say, “Yes, I like this. I agree. This feels true to me.” They go out and take action. Some do this for the first time. We hope this removes some barriers that would prevent them from doing it again, and again, and again….

Culture jamming in one form another has been around a long time, always sort of premised on the idea of “making people think” about ad incursion in our daily lives. (I don’t know if you think of what you’re up to is culture jamming or not, so if I’m using a term you don’t think applies, set me straight….) Sometimes think that this point of view had more currency about ten or twelve years ago than it does now — culture jamming (or whatever) seemed “bigger” then. But maybe I was just younger. Thoughts?

I know people that react to the term “culture jamming.” There’s something about it that’s dated isn’t there? People use terms like tactical media, activist art, or who knows. Personally, what we call it isn’t important to me. I think it’s about being a citizen. I am an artist and I am a citizen. I am also a prankster, and a performer, and a grown-up punk rock kid, and the child of some amazing, ethical, lefty, do-gooders (among a lot of other things). This is just how all that plays out. Maybe it boils down to a set of values combined with a skill set.

In all honesty, I have no objective view on this. In the world I encounter, the trend is always upward. I get more emails and letters from people all over the world thanking the AAA for what we do, asking for more information and more ways to be involved. I also teach and I see students that more or less move from passive consumers towards engaged citizens in the course of a semester. I meet more fellow artists who are responding to the world around them, who want to make work that involves itself in popular culture, work that addresses ideas of social control. People see the relationship between the short-term desires reinforced by advertising and the long-term problems like global warming and war. I admit, this may be the bubble that I walk around in, but regardless, I know once people are educated, they can’t turn back.

In poll after poll, everybody (even advertisers) says there’s too much advertising. Meanwhile, more ads incur on our daily lives. Why pursue awareness and critical thinking? Why not pursue, say, regulation?

Why not pursue both? I think the reason we land on the side of awareness and critical thinking is because we are artists and that’s our area. But the critical thinking part leads to regulation and I push for exactly that in talks, interviews, and on the website.

People often ask, “well, what can we do about all this” or “what are you advocating for.” We’re about being practical, so my answer isn’t “burn it all down,” it’s change the laws. Change the FCC rules about advertising on television and radio, and change the rules about when Public Service Announcements are aired. Force changes at the Ad Council so the ad industry isn’t as involved — creating what I see as a conflict of interest. Adopt laws like Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, and Alaska have that ban billboards, or stop new construction like Oregon, Rhode Island, and San Francisco. Or, dare I say it, remove all outdoor advertising as they’ve done in Sao Paulo, Brazil this year. Tax advertising so that some portion of the billions spent on advertising each year can be used to fund media education and much more.

Here’s a curveball: One of the most interesting developments in public discourse in recent years, to me at least, has been the building of alliances between the environmental movement and certain elements of the evangelical movement. Couldn’t something similar happen in the realm that you’re working in? In your FAQ you note: “Look around and you’ll notice all the important things in life don’t make money — like loving others, giving gifts, sharing time with friends.” Obviously that’s a message that many religious leaders spend a lot of time on (although I assume they’d add some version of “loving God” to the list). Is there any possibility of some kind of common ground there — or are there too many other cultural issues in the way?

Common ground between the AAA and evangelicals? Part of me thinks that would be like making a deal with the devil (pun intended). Yes, there are cultural issues in the way. There are also ethical issues in the way. It may not be completely obvious, but part of this project is about freedom. Freedom from these commercial images and ideas that permeate and limit our imagination of what is possible in the world – ideas about what life is for. I know that some religions have similar ideas — Buddhism for one. I know that some religious people understand life as a search for freedom.

But in my experience, I have seen the religions of evangelicals and many Christians as spreading a different set of social controls that limit freedom and imagination in their own ways. Their criticism of advertising is only because it is in conflict with their attempts to control the thoughts of their followers. I am not interested in controlling thought. I am working to free thought and to encourage analytical thinking. Even perhaps toward some kind of enlightenment — just not one that requires submission.

As an aside, my father was a Franciscan Monk and my mother a Dominican Nun. They left the church essentially because they were too radical for it. I was raised without organized religion.

I posted the other day about your shopdropping workshop being, in a sense, lifted by a word-of-mouth ad agency, working on behalf of a web site that had posted a video of your workshop. What do you make of that?

We knew the video-maker was there. Travelistic pays her for some of the videos she produces. I suppose I am fine with all that. Not too different than a freelance writer, right?

But I didn’t know about the marketing firm. Which is actually odd and darkly funny. Essentially a marketing firm promoted my project, which is critical of advertising and marketing.

Now I think I know why, when the project was posted in the Consumerist blog, it got such a weird reaction from the writers/commenters. The writer didn’t really seem to understand the project — maybe because they heard about it through the marketers — and maybe the writer’s lack of understanding translated to the commenters.

Maybe it’s not so strange that a marketing firm is more or less backing the project. A lot of marketers/advertisers aren’t totally satisfied and take any opportunity to point out the flaws in their business. (Of course they are talking to me, so take that with a grain of salt.)

It’s a good point that there’s something interesting about them spreading your message. On the other hand, they’re also using your message to spread theirs. Personally, I don’t really buy the argument that a marketer claiming to be dissatisfied with marketing is a valid excuse for lifting anti-advertising ideas for an ad campaigns. I don’t think marketers are bad or evil people (some of my best friends are marketers!) but, there are plenty of ways to make a living, and if somebody isn’t comfortable with the business, they shouldn’t be in it.

I wouldn’t call it an excuse, just a tendency I’ve seen. The stereotype I have made is someone who studied art in college, wanted to be a photographer or something, then decided to go safe and got a job in advertising because they got married, bought a house, had a kid, or some combination of the three. They convince themselves that advertising is creative and they still have an outlet. They tell themselves the compromise is necessary and realistic. Then 5+ years later realize they should have done something else. Or that the industry is this strange animal they didn’t completely understand before. Then when they see work that is critical of the industry, they point at it and say, “Yes, yes, that’s it! I agree! That’s how I feel!” I see that happen with the AAA a lot.

And yeah, they are great people. Good friends of mine, too. But somehow they have gotten themselves trapped in this industry and it’s the only thing they know how to do that will pay their mortgage and car payments. Once you make a certain amount of money, it’s hard to go back.

I was reading something in a magazine called Tokion about the “crisis of advertising.” It was an interview with 3 guys. One does the bizarre Burger King stuff from the past few years, one did the Motorola campaigns. Anyway, all seemed like people who understand marketing is problematic, but have attempted to change things by thinking of the “brand as a person.” What kind of person do you want to be friends with and how to you get the advertising to be like that friend? If your friend sends you annoying email all the time saying “look at me,” you wouldn’t like that. But if your friend sends you funny videos, it’s a different story. I’m simplifying it, but essentially they are using these concepts to make new types of campaigns.

It’s interesting to me that so many people within the industry recognize a problem or a crisis. They may blame different things like the internet, or Tivo, or jaded youth, but most recognize a problem. But where they so often go wrong is thinking that the solution to the problem is more of the problem… a more insidious, pervasive, manipulative version of the problem. Again, I’m not sure what to think about that.

I guess I want you to be outraged. Why aren’t you outraged?

It’s easy to be outraged when the problem is simple. If the bad guy is cheating, winning, and the ref doesn’t care, then we can be outraged. While advertising can be seen through that lens, it’s also be much more complicated than that.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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