While Oxford Dictionaries declared 2016 to be the year of ‘post-truth’ politics, we have an alternative suggestion for the advertising industry. This has been the year of the advertising backlash. Instead of putting up with annoying, inconvenient or unattractive ads, consumers have avoided, blocked and covered up banners and billboards alike.

In the year of ‘adblockalypse’ – the latest figures suggest that 21% of us have adblocking software installed – we’ve also seen cats take over Clapham Common and, the latest, a campaign plastered over tube card panels suggesting that advertising ‘shits in your head’. An activist group by the name of Special Patrol Group (SPG) made it their aim to disrupt adverts on the underground network this month because they believe unavoidable tube ads “make us unhappy”. 
The group claims to have replaced 400 paid-for ads with their own. Although a small imprint on the OOH market, this, as with the CATS campaign earlier this year, is a reminder that the groups have made some headway in an anti-advertising movement. Such a movement isn’t unprecedented; in 2007, São Paolo enforced its Clean City Law, which saw over 15,000 billboards removed from the city, along with bus and taxi ads. This, it is assumed, is the activist groups’ end game.

As ad blocking and ad avoidance rates rise, we need to look at how spaces – often public spaces – are used for advertising. If TfL’s ads were replaced with art, photography or inspirational quotes, it may mean more pleasant viewing for the 1.34 billion commuters and tourists travelling on the underground every year. However, with TfL awarding its advertising contract to Exterion Media for an estimated £1.1bn back in March, the profit generated for TfL is not just back pocket change. It goes some way to help maintain the network and, in effect, lessen the price burden on the consumer.

Getting ads removed from the underground is unlikely, at least any time soon, so instead we need to learn from the backlash, and look at what made CATS’ and SPG’s campaigns shareable and relatable. The #advertisingshitsinyourhead hashtag has been posted over 1.5k times on Twitter, and the CATS campaign picked up a mention in almost every national paper.

What the campaigns had in common were that they were unexpected, yet relatable. They offered weary travellers something different, and brightened up a part of the day that is usually the most depressing: the commute. That’s not to say that every campaign should be a media first and commuter-targeted, but advertisers should look to their broader principles to produce great work.

The highest impact ads, along with requiring the highest investment, always tread the line between disruptive and intrusive. As long as advertisers stay on the side of the consumer, and take over spaces with the public in mind, we can learn from, rather than be dismayed by, the anti-advertising movement.

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