Monday, April 23, 2012

Obnoxious Advertising and Retaliation

I recently stumbled across this interesting quote by the graffiti artist Banksy sharing some thoughts on advertising:
"People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs."
The best way to read this quote is as a normative statement concerning the boundaries of J.S. Mill's harm principle, which basically says people should be free to do what they want as long as they're not harming other people. Mill did not consider offensive acts necessarily harmful, and didn't view coercive action to reduce mere offense as morally justified. According to Banksy, many advertisements in public spaces, by virtue of their aggressive and meddlesome nature, do violate the harm principle and thus forfeit their right to physical integrity.

Presumably Banksy thinks it's okay to deface ads in public spaces only because the economic and social policies that encourage them are morally lacking. Ideally he should want a different set of rules that match up with his conception of what a public space should look like.

Banksy's analysis comes to some foolish conclusions: by extending the boundaries of the harm principle to include offense, we're left with an almost infinitely broad rule. City dwellers are constantly looking at random stuff that has been created by other people with various purposes in mind. What separates marketing activity from other sorts of advertising, like political advertisements, notifications about public services, and marketing material for cultural events? Is a business that's offended by the signs and posters displayed by striking workers in a picket line morally justified in defacing or destroying them? Banksy would probably say no, even though they follow from the logic he sets up. Frankly speaking, our modern urban society would fall apart if everybody went around asserting ownership or control over anything that offended them. I think it's more likely that Banksy just doesn't like the aesthetics or symbolism of most corporate marketing, and he's indulging in some poorly-considered rhetorical nonsense.

So what about our system as it stands today? Could we actually have a setup now that gets pretty close to an optimal arrangement, based on the median attitude towards graffiti in public spaces? Let's think about it. If Banksy got his wish and the harm principle was extended to make retaliation for offensive ads fair game, several things would happen. First, the returns on physical advertising would collapse: anybody spending money to design and implement physical advertisements would probably see them defaced or destroyed immediately. We would likely see fewer ads in easy-to-deface places, and more ads in hard-to reach places, like buildings. This would dramatically increase the barriers to entry for smaller firms and non-commercial groups wishing to advertise--probably not the most open and democratic outcome!

Even while dramatically raising the costs of advertising for most groups, Banksy's vision would paradoxically see the costs of amateur graffiti crash to zero. In easy-to-reach areas, this would create a emphatically non-aesthetic mess of tagging and retaliatory defacing. The website 4chan is an interesting social experiment in anarchic anonymous collaboration, but I'd rather not see the same dynamics played out on corner store windows across the country.

With our current setup, graffiti is a serious enough crime as to deter most potential offenders, keeping our buildings and public surfaces relatively clean. We have ads in public spaces, but often the really terrible ones are targeted by the individuals and groups most affected--homeowners, local businesses, neighborhood groups, etc. Additionally, a certain set of die-hards will always be willing to risk getting caught defacing bad advertising in order to make their point. It seems like tweaking some regulations on the margin is the way to go if we're concerned about overly-intrusive ads in public spaces. Or maybe we could just go camping.

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