UK

Brandalism: the environmental activists using spoof adverts to critique rampant consumerism – podcast

Brandalism: the environmental activists using spoof adverts to critique rampant consumerism – podcast

Amid the flurry of billboards promoting cut price deals in the run up to Black Friday, some activists have slipped in the odd spoof advert. By subverting public advertising space, they’re risking legal action to try and make serious points about the excesses of consumer culture and the perilous state of the environment.

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we find out about the subvertising movement and its links to a wider conversation about mass consumerism and the environment.

One parody poster in the British city of Birmingham reads: “Don’t buy stuff. Enjoy your friends.” Another, in Reading, says: “Didn’t read the warnings? No vision, no friends. Should have gone to Specsavers.”

These actions are all submissions for the ZAP Games – an invitation for people to take action against outdoor advertising infrastructure in the two weeks leading up to Black Friday.

Categories in the games, which began in Belgium in 2022, include most family friendly intervention and most beautiful or artistic intervention. Run by a group called Subvertisers International, it’s the latest in an ongoing series of anti-advertising actions, often rooted in concerns about the environment.

Subvertising, in which activists subvert advertising often using the language and style of the brand itself, is also known as culture jamming, or brandalism – a mashup of brand and vandalism.

Eleftheria Lekakis, a senior lecturer in media and communication at the University of Sussex in the UK, has been studying the movement since it caught her attention in 2015 at the COP21 climate talks in Paris.

The point of advertising is to sell. The point of subvertising is to open up that message and … attach a whole range of meanings to it, meanings that are more akin to social and environmental justice.

She began analysing a number of the subverts that emerged during the COP21 talks to understand the points the brandalists were trying to make. She found attacks on corporate greed and on the inadequacy of politicians to challenge the status quo, but also environmental narratives about grief and the Earth in mourning.

Lekakis believes that subverts grab viewers’ attention because they start a conversation.

Sometimes it can feed into a larger conversation which exists around the role of advertising in society today and the limits that we should think about collectively, when it comes to advertising.

Find out more about subvertising and brandalism by listening to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly. A transcript will be available soon.


This episode was written, produced and sound designed by Eloise Stevens, with production assistance from Mend Mariwany and Katie Flood. Gemma Ware is the executive producer of the show. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on X, formerly known as Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also subscribe to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

Listen to The Conversation Weekly via any of the apps listed above, download it directly via our RSS feed or find out how else to listen here.

Eleftheria Lekakis does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.