The Billboard Commandos

Warning: Low-tech activists are altering our ads

| January-February 1996

The power struggle of the future may indeed take place in cyberspace, but some of today’s most visible culture jammers are co-opting two old-school conduits of corporate and commercial communication: billboards and photocopy machines. These low-tech activists subvert authority in quietly insidious ways, scaling billboards at night to alter advertising messages or hitting the “Print” button right under the boss’s nose to run off a ream of counterculture flyposters.

Everyone has seen billboards crudely defaced by vandals or blunt activists; a smaller, select audience has been exposed to the more considered, quirkier messages of billboard “liberators,” as they often call themselves. San Francisco’s Billboard Liberation Front is one of the oldest such organized outfits in the country; according to The Bear Essential (Summer 1995), the BLF “has been ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ drive-by media for 18 years.”

The BLF is more mischievous than strident, altering outdoor advertising messages with an agenda that is sometimes social and political, sometimes simply idiosyncratic. Thousands of San Franciscans have undoubtedly done double takes at the sight of BLF projects that have turned “Marlboro” into “Marlbore,” or left a post-oil-spill Exxon billboard reading simply “Shit Happens.”

Billboards, which The Bear Essential likens to “chronic cultural acne,” are a natural target for alteration because they are constantly in our faces: “Averaging 20 by 30 feet, they steal space in our lives, transform our visions, and control our perception.” And “nearly anyone can pirate an outdoor ad space”—unlike television and radio advertising—“if one is willing to risk second-degree felony.”

The billboard industry makes no distinction between activism and vandalism. Kippy Burns, spokeswoman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, whose 600 members control 80 percent of the nation’s billboard space, says, “This is an illegal act. Any violators should be punished to the full extent of the law.” (Burns points out that the association’s members annually donate 10 percent of their inventory to public service advertising.)

The experienced liberators of the BLF go to great lengths to avoid detection and maintain their high standards of quality. They photograph, measure, and chip paint colors from targeted signs, monitor traffic activity in the area, and temporarily disable lights before pulling off their orchestrated predawn operations. “The results,” reads The Bear Essential, “are alterations that masterfully mimic existing advertisements” color and design, but that profoundly modify their messages without damaging property.”

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