The Billboard Liberation Front doesn’t make art. Instead, they co-opt one of the most popular advertising mediums to make ironic, and usually critical statements. They turn the advertiser’s message against itself. The resulting implosion can range from humorous to disturbingly revealing – even sometimes achieving both at once.
A 30 year old outfit, BLF was borne out of San Francisco’s Suicide Club, and have since enacted billboard liberations around the globe. Their infamy has turned them into defining figures in the world of culture jamming.
Attempting a straight face, they philosophize that “to Advertise is to Exist. To Exist is to Advertise. Our ultimate goal is nothing short of a personal and singular Billboard for each citizen.” Their mission statement holds that:
Of all the types of media used to disseminate the Ad there is only one which is entirely inescapable to all but the bedridden shut-in or the Thoreauian misanthrope. We speak, of course of the Billboard. Along with its lesser cousins, advertising posters and “bullet” outdoor graphics, the Billboard is ubiquitous and inescapable to anyone who moves through our world. Everyone knows the Billboard; the Billboard is in everyones mind.
To the public, BLF poses as a traditional advertising agency, boasting a client list that includes Apple, Exxon, Revlon, and Marlboro. Each hit is complemented with a press release to media outlets.
Most recently, BLF received significant attention for their jab at AT&T for collusion with the NSA. Video of the hit is available here.
Membership in the Billboard Liberation Front is open. Franchises can be started with each new liberation:
Each time you change the Advertising message in your own mind, whether you climb up onto the board and physically change the original copy and graphics or not, each time you improve the message, you enter in to the High Priesthood of Advertisers.
We caught up with Milton Rand Kalman, BLF’s Chief Scientist briefly via email:
Groundswell Collective: Billboard liberation rests on utilizing traditional avenues (the billboard for improvement, the media for dissemination, etc.) to subvert the powers that be. Do you focus on communicating a message, or collective expression more?
Billboard Liberation Front: I think was resonates most with our audience is expressing a collective frustration with the obsequious nature of advertising in public space. I would be hard pressed to say that we have a message beyond, “if we can do it you can too.”
GC: In the past, BLF has been the subject of gallery exhibitions. Do you consider what BLF does art?
BLF: No more than anyone would consider advertising ‘art’. We work most effectively in our improvements because over the years we have done an excellent job of using the language of marketing in our alterations. The work I think has been most effective did the least amount of alteration, and nowadays we try our best to match the colors and typeface of the existing boards so our improvement blends seamlessly. If art is a reflection of life as the artist sees it, and your life is marketing then I guess you could consider it art.
I think was resonates most with our audience is expressing a collective frustration with the obsequious nature of advertising in public space.
GC: BLF founding member Jack Napier has been quoted frequently as saying “Any sophomore in an advertising program understands that any product exposure at all increases unit sales.” Is that notion something the group tries to reconcile with?
BLF: No publicity is bad publicity. The BLF with less than $300 of supplies liberation a board part of a $300 million dollar ad campaign; and in turn generate an enormous amount of interest. Take for instance our ATT/NSA hit, we made boingboing, metafilter and digg, and about 150k unique visitors and over 3.1 million hits in one day, if ATT or the NSA get a few complimentary hits on their website, we are more than happy to share the love. Part of diatribe is that we have nothing against advertising or billboard, we just lack the means ourselves to put up a message of our own, so we piggyback on whatever we can find.
If art is a reflection of life as the artist sees it, and your life is marketing then I guess you could consider it art.
GC: Humor, parody and paradox are defining features of the BLF. Is that to cover your tracks, or just in keeping with the overall message?
BLF: Humor, along with lifestyle and sex are prevalent themes in advertising messages. In using the language of the advertiser its important to focus on those ideas, we’re just not good looking enough for the other two.
GC: How do you feel about the recent trend toward socially conscious design and cause marketing? Would you ever liberate a billboard for, say, an anti-poverty NGO?
BLF: We get asked this a lot, the members of the BLF have fairly diverse political backgrounds and ideas. We mostly stick to advertising for the sake of advertising just so there isn’t some overbearing argument in the nature of the message, making it too polarizing. Though we applaud recent billboard alterations with anti-war or anti-poverty messages, we do not do them, as then we would feel there would be an obligation to ‘get the message out’ over the simple join of changing a billboard for fun. We do however have a manual The Art and Science of Billboard Improvement on our website, which we encourage anyone to download and review. We do occasionally get request to do websites of that nature, to which I reply, “Congratulations, you are now a franchise of the BLF, here is the manual and if the message means that much to you, do it yourself.”
Though we applaud recent billboard alterations with anti-war or anti-poverty messages, we do not do them, as then we would feel there would be an obligation to ‘get the message out’ over the simple join of changing a billboard for fun.
GC: You’ve done a few collaborations with Ron English. Any hope for another in the works?
BLF: We love Ron dearly, and its nice to know someone is making money off this silliness. Whenever Mssr English comes out to the West Coast we also do a hit with him, ditto goes for when we find ourselves out in NY. I would be surprised if we didn’t have one in the future but I don’t know of any planned.
All photo credits to BLF.