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Small anti-ad groups take on big billboard companies

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An AT&T billboard in San Francisco that has been "improved" by Billboard Liberation Front. (Courtesy of Billboard Liberation Front)

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Steven Lambert, founder of Anti-Advertisement Agency, shows a sticker stencil that reads: "You don't need it." (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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Steven Lambert, founder of the Anti-Advertisement Agency, unrolls an information poster about illegal billboards. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

One night in February, members of the Billboard Liberation Front scaled an AT&T billboard in San Francisco with a distinct message. In eight quick minutes, they pasting letters over a corporate slogan that touted AT&T phone service’s working in places like China, London and Moscow, and left it reading: AT&T Works In More Places, “like NSA Headquarters.”

Several weeks later, in a dim art studio in downtown Manhattan, the founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency attached a file folder inside a laser cutter. The laser tip quickly carved out three rows of identical text: “you don’t need it.” That is the message that the agency spreads around New York.

After reading an article about illegal billboards in Philadelphia, an elementary school teacher noticed a billboard in her neighborhood that turned out to be illegal as well. She took the ad company to court to force down the billboard, and that inspired her to form the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB).

“With an industry so powerful as the outdoor advertising industry in the United States, you need to be able to challenge them legally; otherwise, they’ll just kind of flip you off like you’re a fly,” said Mary Tracy, executive director of SCRUB.

The increasing omnipresence of the multibillion-dollar advertising industry is being challenged these days by a movement that also seems to be growing. Some, like the Billboard Liberation Front, use theatrical guerrilla tactics to gently tease the ad industry with daring stunts. Others, like the Anti-Advertising Agency, make subversive art that warns the public against the evils of advertisements. A few, like SCRUB, harness the power of local and state governments to keep aggressive advertisers at bay.

In 2006, companies spent $6.8 billion on outdoor ads, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. There are close to 1 million individual outdoor displays in the United States. Florida leads with the highest number of billboards. In fact, billboards are the most popular medium of outdoor advertising, making up 64 percent of all signs.

“Advertising has always been a controversial area,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of Association of National Advertisers, “but the facts are that in this country, advertising has very broad protection under the First Amendment. Groups who are trying to restrict advertising have generally found that those efforts have failed.”

Only four states have clamped down on outdoor advertising. Hawaii banned billboards in the 1920s. Vermont and Maine followed a half-century later. Alaska joined the list of billboard-free states after voters outlawed them by referendum in 1998.

Most major strides against billboards have come by local activists.

In Philadelphia, SCRUB has used litigation to win more than 20 cases against billboard companies. It also has used the court system to get rid of 950 illegal signs.

The group was instrumental in the 1991 passage of two local ordinances that set the limit on size and height of outdoor sign and put a cap on how many new billboards could go up.

The last city administration “seemed to be very friendly to the billboard industry,” said Tracy, “and I’m hoping that the new regime here in Philadelphia will protect the public space in a much more responsible way.”

In New York, the founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency, Steven Lambert, uses art to take on the ad industry.

Lambert, 32, founded his organization in New York in 2004. He was joined by 15 to 20 artists in their late 20s and early 30s, who were equally fed up with billboards.

“Nobody really likes spam,” Lambert said, “and if you start referring to outdoor advertising as public space spam, you sort of get it.”

Lambert and his colleagues work in a variety of media to get their point across. Two years ago, they installed rectangular audio boxes in Brooklyn that were triggered by a motion detector, playing back on-the-street interviews with people about their opinions on outdoor ads.

Another project Lambert coached was the People Product123, which allowed online users to download alternative labels for common products and stick them on those products in stores. The label for Coca-Cola, for example, featured images and stories of factory workers who make the drink.

“We’re up against a billion-dollar industry,” Lambert said. “What’s nice about it, it doesn’t take a whole lot to spread the message.”

Lambert made all the materials available free of charge on his Web site, http://antiadvertisingagency.com, so that anyone who is frustrated with a billboard could print the stickers and cover it up.

“No one lives in Times Square because it’s uninhabitable for humans,” he said. “That’s not what our cities should look like.”

In San Francisco, the Billboard Liberation Front has been tampering with outdoor ads since 1977. But the group’s founder, who calls himself Jack Napier after the Joker character from Batman comics, is annoyed by such statements anti-ad activists routinely make about billboards in Times Square.

“If you’re in New York or Tokyo or Berlin,” he said, “I think the more signs the better. If you don’t like that, you should move to the suburbs and the country and not try to stop what cities represent.”

For Napier, the goal is to break the monopoly of the ad industry over public space so that everyone could create a billboard.

“It seems not entirely fair that so few individuals and corporations control these canvasses,” Napier said. “We strongly believe that they are public property and people should go up and use them as they like.”

Napier, 49, has been needling advertisers from the day when he and 25 other “delinquents” from the San Francisco Suicide Club were brought, blindfolded, in front of a Max Factor billboard and told to “improve it.” That was the first and last time Napier was arrested.

Napier has been “improving” billboards ever since by changing commercial slogans into witty, often political messages. Members of the group make a point of never damaging billboards. After every hit, they even leave behind a bottle of expensive liquor as an offering to the sign repair guys.

“In a way, they’re realizing that we’re not really hurting their ability to make money on their ads,” Napier said. “If we were impeding the commercial aspects of any of these campaigns, they’d probably come and swat us like a bug.”

“We’d actually considered billing the advertising agencies for our services,” Napier added jokingly. “We’re having a hard time getting paid for our work.”

E-mail: sf2345@columbia.edu