Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, for work. The trip was so that I could attend an art and design education fair and to talk at a couple of high schools about our courses. This was my first such recruitment trip abroad, and I’m told you often only get to see a city from a car window and in the evening before flying back the next day. Thankfully though, because of the timings of our itinerary, I managed to get a little time to myself to wander the city and soak up Bucharest’s visual culture.
This was my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one, given the timing of the trip, that was over-shadowed by Brexit. Our host, locals and delegates from other countries all had an opinion, with none of them positive. The majority of Romanians I spoke to about it, (and Romania isn’t a country afraid of change, it could be argued), all thought Britain was putting itself in a ridiculous position.
One of the things that struck me about Bucharest from the outset, was that it is a country that is happy to wear its history on its sleeve—it is there in plain sight for everyone to see. Our hotel was very close to Revolution Square, the site of the uprising that saw Nicolae Ceaușescu toppled from power nearly 30 years ago.
Monuments to these tumultuous times have seen better days, and the local anarchists appear to show little respect for those that lost their lives fighting against the dictator. Some locals said the current government is the most corrupt in 100 years, so it appears a struggle continues. Given we were a week away from national celebrations of 100 years of independence for Romania, this is some claim given their more recent history.
While some may praise Lush for its recent #SpyCops poster campaign, having your own shop window to deliver a political campaign message in is a luxury most do not have. Now, the non-shop owning agitpropper can turn to Brandalism, who have launched a Subvertising Manual that shows anyone how to reclaim visual spaces from advertisers by replacing 6-sheet adverts with their own artwork.
Taking aim at the backlit hoardings most frequently seen at bus stops, the manual tells you everything you need to know to hang your own work in these spaces. Subtitled What You Need And How To Do It, it discusses what tools are required to open the displays; artwork sizes for the majority of bus shelter hoardings, (advertising lingo calls these 6-sheets); what to wear and the best times of day to hang your work to avoid getting caught; and where you can find information online so your work stays up as long as possible.
Although my McJunk project has been on hiatus for a while, I do occasionally post the odd example to Instagram. Believing that one person’s litter in the gutter is another person’s advert glaring from a billboard—because regardless of context, any representation of the McDonald’s logo reinforces brand recognition—I never thought that the company would sanction a marketing campaign that made a focus of its own litter. But in this post-irony world how wrong I appear to have been, as a new campaign for the restaurant chain proves.
Alongside others commenting online, I can draw clear parallels between TWBA\Paris’s poster campaign for the fast food chain and the discarded litter I often see strewn about my neighbourhood. The adverts use a simple colour palette and beautifully shot photography of McDonald’s food packaging with no food visible, bar a few crumbs. These tiny morsels, in such a minimal setting, only accentuate the sense that the packaging has been discarded after the product has been consumed.
Yesterday I took my grandson to see the Lego Batman Movie at a cinema complex in town. It was great fun, even if much of the film was a little over the head of the 7 year old boy.
Such cinema complexes aren’t my usual choice of venue for movie going. Several people had warned me about the price of popcorn prior to the visit, and I expected to be marketed at from all angles, so I didn’t think I was going with any illusions. But as much as I enjoyed the film, the experience was sullied by coming away feeling that the boy and I had just been fodder for a slick and well organised advertising industry.
Obviously I knew there would be advertisments before the film, and clearly a Lego movie is just one big advert for its own product. But I didn’t expect the blatant iPhone product placement throughout the film itself. Product placement is nothing new, but what shocked me was that it wasn’t even trying to be discrete. I pity children and teenagers going through playground battles about who has the coolest mobile, just as sneaker wars have affected other generations. With a predictably young audience for such a film, this wasn’t just insidious behaviour on the part of Lego and Apple, but irresponsible when considering the price of such devices. During the film, in an act of self-acknowledgement postmodernism, Lego Batman visits an orphanage to shower the children inside with Batmerch. As funny and honest as this was, the joke rang hollow by the end of the movie.
It is an impressive feat for an item of graphic design to stop you in your tracks. This week, while flicking through The Guardian in my lunch break, a full-page advert for Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, did just that.
There is more than a little New Rave and London 2012 Olympics about it. And the bold typography and clashing colours couldn’t fail to catch my attention, which is its point. For a city like Hull that is often described as being (insert own choice of ‘deprived’ adjective here) to be awarded City of Culture, there must be something going on there that many people south of the Humber Bridge have over-looked. It is out to grab attention, and nestled in amongst the column inches, and adverts for furniture and cars, there is little else to compete with it.
The copy gives voice to an entire city as being warm, welcoming and intelligently witty, but without over playing its hand or coming across as false. For the inquisitive it could be enough to make them search out what is being planned for Hull 2017, it did me. There is a bravery and freshness to this approach that many other towns and cities would avoid, being too wrapped up in their own heritage and thinking culture equals ‘serious’ or ‘highbrow’. It is a shame that the agency that produced the branding, Jaywing, aren’t based in Hull—but then maybe it takes someone with an outsider’s view to take such a radical approach.
I’ve never been to Hull and this makes me want to go.
It is not too bold a statement to claim that advertising is designed to interrupt our vision and assert itself into our conscious and subconscious minds. If it didn’t, corporations would not devote huge budgets to it. But recently I have observed a growth online of adverts that actually disrupt host content, in what can only be described as visual bullying. This is no more obvious than on newspaper websites that remain free from subscription.
Looking at the instances of this dominating behaviour there is a clear hierarchy of worst offenders, with banner adverts being the most benign but none-the-less annoying for the reader. Many people will be familiar with websites jumping up and down while a browser decides what advert is going to be placed in the header. This appears worse on tablets as responsive websites rearrange themselves to suit a specific device. Add to this a slow internet connection, and such visual gymnastics can make a reader abandon before everything has settled down.
The UK’s gutters and hedgerows will soon see new graphics on McJunk strewn there. Below is a link to an article I wrote for Eye magazine blog about an uncritical design press showcasing the new designs, asking whether well respected blogs are just becoming advertising hoardings for big brands trying to ingratiate themselves with those working in the creative industries.
Every year there must be hundreds of dissertations being written by undergraduate design students about the portrayal of women in advertising, all referencing the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and Adbusters along the way. And you could spend a long time trawling the Internet for articles about sex being used to sell commercial products. I’ve become a little used to such arguments. However, I never expected to see sex being used to sell integrated office systems. That is, until I turned a corner in Norwich the other day to be confronted by this image on the back of a van:
I was dumbfounded and genuinely taken aback for a few seconds. I could start a basic National Diploma level Media Studies deconstruction at this point, mentioning the see-through blouse and the provocative pointing of the metaphor, sorry, I mean pen. I haven’t worked in many offices over the years, but I suspect this attire would receive raised eyebrows in the average insurance office. It certainly would in the Art and Design department staff-room I frequent in my day job.