David Ogilvy and Jordan Seiler: Adman and Agitator, Defenders of Public Space

left, David Ogilvy, famous adman; right, Jordan Seiler, of Public Ad Campaign

The late David Ogilvy, who founded the Madison Avenue firm of Ogilvy & Mather that created such iconic campaigns as “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” is sometimes known as the father of modern advertising.  So the fact that he also had a passionate hatred for outdoor advertising may come as something of a surprise.

Here’s what he said, in his 1963 autobiography:  I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard. When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bikes, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?

Jordan Seiler isn’t a masked vigilante who chops down billboards at night.  But the New York-based artist may be the most committed and articulate voice in the country on behalf of the proposition that public spaces dominated by corporate advertising are harmful to the social fabric, and that artists and others should act to reclaim those spaces for uses other than the marketing of products and services.

Seiler’s effort, operating under the title of “Public Ad Campaign”, has mobilized artists to “reclaim” commercial advertising displays in New York and Toronto.  In New York last year, artists created works of art on more than 200 street-level billboards after the ad displays were whitewashed.  In Toronto this summer, almost 90 displays on advertising pillars were replaced with works of art, and 20 billboards were whitewashed.  (Seiler covered one illegal billboard in Silverlake earlier this year on a trip to L.A.)

Almost all of this was done in daylight, with no attempt at secrecy, which may be seen as consistent with Public Ad Campaign’s manifesto, which states, in part:  Through bold acts of civil disobedience we hope to air our grievances in the court of public opinion and witness our communities regain control of the spaces they occupy. This “boldness” also provides a sharp contrast with the activities of sign companies which often operate under cover of darkness, especially when putting up signs without first bothering to get required permits or complying with any building and zoning regulations.

The advertising signs whitewashed and re-purposed with art in New York all belonged to a company called National Promotions and Advertising, which was founded by two L.A. entrepreneurs.   According to Seiler, all of the signs were illegal, while one of those founders, Gary Shafner, insisted that they were all legal.  In any case, police arrested 9 persons during that effort, but the charges were dropped after the company declined to pursue prosecution.  (Shafner was one of several outdoor advertisers profiled earlier this year in an L.A. Weekly article,  The Mad Men of Los Angeles.)

While the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight has never advocated the destruction of public or private property, or any other clearly unlawful activity, the blatant disregard of laws by elements of the outdoor advertising industry intent upon plastering public spaces with ads makes it hard to censure those who believe, like Jordan Seiler, that  “ public space and the public’s interaction with that space is a vital component of our city’s health.”  Which is to say, if the public’s interaction is confined and directed by corporate advertisers whose sole purpose is to induce a desire to consume products and services, that space is not a healthy space.  This is doubly so if the ads are placed illegally, because the underlying message is that inducing that desire to consume must take precedence over other values—social, architectural, artistic—inherent in public space, and that any means to advance it, regardless of legality, is justified.

For Seiler and Public Ad Campaign, the distinction between ads placed legally and illegally is clearly less important than the distinction between public spaces dominated by advertising and those where non-commercial forms of expression like public art aren’t drowned out by pitches for fast food and TV shows.  The former, Seiler rightly observes, offer one-way communications—the viewer is essentially being told to perform a certain act of consumption—while the latter engage the viewer in a dialogue with those pieces of art.  Which could range from a simple “Huh?” to a prolonged mental discourse on postmodernism, or some other art theory.  (Of course, a given work of art could also provoke nothing more than a shrug of indifference)

Some might point out that art is as much a commodity as the goods for sale on the billboards and digital screens and supergraphic signs, which is true in the sense that works of art are bought and sold and even advertised, although there is surely a crucial difference between a corporate product offered in quantity to a mass market, and a one-of-a-kind painting or sculpture produced by an individual artist whose impulse is creative expression, not marketing.  In any event, artists aren’t regularly raking in millions of dollars from an appropriation of the public viewscape, and their chances of ever doing so are infinitesimally small.  And regardless of what their individual motives might be, under Seiler’s direction they are acting as provocateurs in service of a critically important idea, which is that privatization of public space through corporate advertising is unhealthy psychologically, socially, and democratically, and ought to be strenuously opposed.

Does that mean Ogilvy’s secret society of masked vigilantes or Public Ad Campaign’s cadres of artists are heroes who should be applauded instead of rounded up and thrown in jail?  You decide.

For more on Jordan Seiler and Public Ad Campaign NY ad takeover, watch the following short film, “On Corporate Graffiti.”

Dennis Hathaway

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