REGULAR commuters zooming through New York's Holland Tunnel might have noticed the change, but only if they looked closely. Billboards were changing overnight. In one instance, the tanned and happy smoker on one billboard, emblazoned "Forever Kool," was replaced by a graphic of a sheet-covered corpse.
The billboard had been "liberated" by Cicada, a New Jersey artists' group that subtly - and illegally - alters the images or text of certain advertisements as a form of social protest.
This is called "culture jamming" - a strategy used by grass-roots activists that is working its way into the American mainstream. Groups like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Greenpeace are beginning to adopt the agitprop attitudes of culture jamming and are paying for billboard space to get their own messages across. But the heart of the movement lies with the groups who use paint, glue, and computer graphics to wage a guerrilla-war type of social activism that some say could set the style for social movements in the 1990s.
"Culture jamming is using the mass media to bite its own tail," says Karl Lasn of the Media Foundation, the Vancouver-based publisher of "Adbusters" magazine.
Words as weapons
Activist groups target specific industries or issues. The Santa Cruz, Calif., group Truth in Advertising has changed a suntan lotion ad reading "Tropical Blend. The Savage Tan" to say "Typical Blend. Sex in Ads." In San Francisco, the Billboard Liberation Front has altered Marlboro billboards to read "Marlbore."
The Boston anti-smoking group Infact has also targeted Marlboro and the Phildelphia Troublemakers & Anarchists, or PTA, has added grafitti to billboards advertising Basic cigarettes. Underneath the slogan "Your Basic Message," the group plastered the postscript: "You give them money, they give you cancer."
"It's dramatic, it hits home," Mr. Lasn says. "People are inundated daily with mass-marketing campaigns, we're a visual society. Change a word or image to change an ad's message and people understand immediately."
While the messages are hard-hitting, the methods are rarely legal. Members of the four-man group Cicada, which protests the concentration of alcohol and tobacco billboards in low-income and minority neighborhoods, have been arrested for violating grafitti laws.
"Our actions are justified by the fact that these communities need help," Cicada member Pedro Carvajal says. "They are bombarded with a disproportionate number of negative messages. Children in middle-class neighborhoods don't pass billboards for alcohol and cigarettes on their way to school."
Mr. Carvajal's charge is backed by Scenic America, a conservation group.
"We've seen it over and over again," says policy director Frank Vespy. "More billboards in low-income and minority neighborhoods advertise booze and tobacco. In Baltimore, we found over 900 illegal billboards, 75 percent of them in low-income neighborhoods and 75 percent of them advertising alcohol or tobacco."
While culture jammers believe they're simply spreading the truth, billboard owners contend they're also violating other people's rights.
"We advertise legal products," says Lou Giordano, vice president of Gannett Outdoor of New Jersey. "[Billboard activists] have First Amendment rights to free speech, but so do advertisers." When Cicada's precursor clashed with Gannett over tobacco billboards, they eventually reached a compromise: Gannett offered the artists space for their own billboard message.
"I only wish they'd come to us first before damaging so much property," Mr. Giordano says.
While Giordano didn't see a need to take legal action against the artists, Kippy Burns of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America is firm: "We firmly believe that they are breaking the law. And violators should be punished to the full extent of the law."
But the billboard industry has no qualms about running mock ads when the clients can pay for the space. In the last year and a half, the Teamsters union and others have joined the culture-jamming fray by renting billboards to parody ads of companies they believe are rogue employers.
For a campaign against layoffs by Miller Brewing Company, the Teamsters created a billboard spoofing a Miller ad. Instead of two frosty cans of beer in a snow bank and the caption "Two cold," the Teamsters featured the same scene with two workers, frozen and lodged inside the cans. The caption read "Too cold," and in smaller print, "Miller canned 88 St. Louis workers."
"It was a very unusual move for us, but it's been effective," says Ron Carver, director of the Teamsters' Office of Strategic Campaigns. "Public reaction has been strongly positive."
That positive response could spur other mainstream groups to try their own upscale version of culture jamming, just as grass-roots activity could pose more of a challenge to the billboard industry in the future. Cicada is creating a World Wide Web site that will feature, among other things, "how to" lessons on culture jamming.
Lasn thinks this is just the beginning.
"It may well be the social activism of the 1990s," he says.