The old days, specifically, the early 1980s. Before internet activism, and the ease of creating subversive memes, artists had to take a few more risks to get their message across. I was privileged to see a couple of these in person, and they pretty much delighted everyone. Well, okay, most of the younger crowd. It may well be time to get subversive once again, off the net.
The year was 1980 and no billboard was safe. A loose group of artists, designers, and troublemakers called Truth in Advertising were makjing not-so-subtle changes to advertisements all over Santa Cruz. The goal was to subvert lowbrow doublespeak with clever turns of phrase that made fun of the product being sold or revealed the truth behind the slogan. One example is is cigarette campaign with the vaguely positive language, “Kent III, Experience It!” tweaked to say “Cancer, Experience It!”
Bob Stayton, a.k.a., “William Board,” invented a method for “updating” these monumental ads that would spread to friends and friends of friends, all operating under the Truth in Advertising moniker. “No one knows how many people participated over the years,” Stayton writes on his website. “There was no roster, and no email list (there was no email back then). Since the activity was illegal, it was best not to know names.” He tells The Creators Project that his process involved carefully studying the typography of the ad words, projecting Polaroid photos onto graph paper to nail the proportions, and then pasting wallpaper painted with acrylic over the billboard.
Stayton was personally involved in at least 12 rewrites, which he planned or photographed. “I’m retired, but I published the directions in case someone else wants to give it a try,” he says. While he’s focusing on his day job as a computer consultant and the author of a book about solar energy, he’s left an open invitation to artists looking to take up his mantle. “If someone uses our method then they can use the Truth in Advertising name. No trademark there!” he says. While we don’t condone the destruction of private property, you can read the official guide to Truth in Advertising here, and do with it what you will.
The Creators Project has the full story. It’s always time to get creative!