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Anti-Billboard Activists Recall Rebel Tradition

by Sebastian Rotella and Audrey Bastide

PARIS -- Over the centuries, the French have cultivated the fine art of rebellion.

The 'Dismantlers' in action The list of targets encompasses tyrants, wars, colonialism and, above all, capitalism in its many manifestations. The latest enemy may seem unlikely: billboards.

The Dismantlers, as a nationwide group of anti-ad crusaders call themselves, aren't violent or loud or clandestine. In fact, they invite the police to protest rallies where they deface signs. With a copywriter's flair, one of their slogans warns: "Attention! Avert your eyes from ads: You risk being very strongly manipulated." The goal of the Dismantlers is to get arrested, argue the righteousness of their cause in court and, you guessed it, gain publicity.

"We challenge the mercantile society that destroys all human relationships, professional relationships, health, the environment," said Alexandre Baret, 35, a founder of the group. "It's a message that proposes to attack advertising as the fuel of this not very healthy society."

Despite the stick-it-to-the-man rhetoric, there were neckties and briefcases in the crowd at an evening rally here a while back. Part-time insurgents had come from work for the gathering in the Place Malesherbes, an elegant, tree-lined plaza graced by statues of the author Alexandre Dumas and his musketeer hero D'Artagnan, one of literature's most irrepressible swashbucklers.

The 80-odd demonstrators, looking bohemian and stylish, listened to Baret set the ideological stage. The red-bearded schoolteacher and father of four explained that he doesn't want to abolish advertising, just limit signs to no more than 1.2 feet by 1.6 feet. The current wall-size dimensions are obtrusive and oppressive, he said.

The large and colorful billboards that are a fixture of the Paris streetscape are hard to ignore, especially the many suggestive ads for undergarments. Some consider them artistic; religious fundamentalists condemn them as proof of Western decadence.

"You see commercial messages every day, you get them right in the face, in the subway, in the street, all the time, and if you don't want to, you do not have the choice," Baret declared over a megaphone. "So we are obliged to resort to civil disobedience. In a symbolic manner, we will tag a few billboards in order to provoke debate and push for things to progress."

Baret urged the crowd to give a cordial welcome to the police. Advised by the activists ahead of time, the authorities had dispatched a squad of riot police, the renowned head-thumpers of the CRS, or Republican Security Companies.

The officers formed a cordon: burly and stern in blue uniforms, black gloves, pants tucked into lace-up boots. They looked bemused. They were no doubt thankful to tangle with polite leftists instead of housing-project gangs who have been known to "welcome" police with bricks, Molotov cocktails and gunfire.

Under Baret's direction, three activists approached billboards promoting audiovisual products and a television talk show and spray-painted them with slogans. The police slapped on handcuffs and led their prisoners to a van. There was applause. An accordion accompanied the crowd in a popular song, "The Deserter," with lyrics modified for the occasion. And that was that.

The Dismantlers represent an enduring contradiction of the French mentality. The center-right won the last elections by a comfortable margin. Juggernaut industries sell the world everything from jets to trains to wine. The average citizen enjoys long vacations, a beach or country home and a lifestyle that is the envy of the West.

Nonetheless, a large percentage of the population tells pollsters that it is hostile to the capitalist system. That ideological current produced the anti-advertising movement, which took off in 2003 and has won sympathy with its mix of economic and environmental messages.

"I think that when you get down to it, they are right," said Marina, 33, a restaurant worker who stopped to see what the fuss was about in the Place Malesherbes. "Between TV, Internet and advertising billboards, we are told about consumption all the time."

But Marina expressed doubt that this particular mini-revolution would triumph.

"I find it funny, but a little useless," she said. "I think tagging ads bothers passersby more than anything. A sign full of graffiti is even worse than having to look at an ad."

Unlike anarchists or other groups that engage in hit-and-run tactics, the Dismantlers see the courtroom as a battlefield of choice. They gather contributions to pay fines that are often low because judges tend to be lenient and the vandalism is calculated to remain minimal.

Baret appeared at a hearing last month on charges of "unauthorized advertising." The case involved an incident in 2007 when he was caught plastering commuter trains with the "avert your eyes" stickers.

Baret, who like his fellow insurgents is a veteran defendant, had refused to pay the $58 fine. His lawyer argued that his actions were less destructive than the 57,000 giant signs that fill the train stations of France.

"The advertisements are energy-intensive, they use paper from forests," the lawyer said. "It's an assault on individual liberties, an advertising aggression."

In response, the prosecutor reminded the accused that "the tribunal is not a tribune." A lawyer representing the French railroad company, which demanded a symbolic $1.30 in damages and $650 for legal costs, chided the activists for returning to rabble-rousing of "years ago."

A verdict is expected in February. But the Dismantlers say they have already won by making people stop and think about the messages that bombard them each day.

"The advertising budget in France is $39 billion a year," said Antoine Trouillard, a 26-year-old philosophy student and activist.

"That's equivalent to the entire education budget in France. . . . Our movement goes a lot further than a simple symbolic gesture. And that's what we want the public to understand."

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