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The main aversion people tend to have to advertising probably also is its main claim to effectivity: it gets on our nerves. So badly, in fact, that following an initiative by mayor Gilberto Kassab, the Brazilian city of São Paolo passed the ‘Cidade Limpa’ (‘clean city’) law in 2006. 15000 billboards and 300000 boisterous signs were taken down.
A mayor as an urban ad blocker: for a commercial-free experience you need not belong to the 25 per cent of the German, Indian and Canadian internet users that have special software installed: all you need to do is visit São Paulo.
Irritation about advertising is as old as the poster, which first became popular at the end of the nineteenth century, when Jules Chéret successfully managed to apply the technique of lithography. The Belle Époque began, and the Maîtres de l’Affiche greatly popularized the Moulin Rouge, the Paris Opera and Ruinart champagne amongst Parisians. Grumpy contemporaries described the Paris of the Belle Époque as “nothing more than an immense wall of posters, studded from chimney to pavement with squares of paper of all colours and sizes”. Clubs like Les amis de Paris (‘the friends of Paris’) sounded the alarm. Strict regulations brought the streets of the city back to the streets as we know them today.
The chérets, as the posters were referred to, also accelerated cultural change. Women weren’t portrayed simply as being either tarty or frumpy, as they usually had been, but as being joyful, elegant and lively. The posters served as an emancipatory boost.
Just as it was commercially attractive to portray women in a progressive manner in late nineteenth century Paris, so a similar type of activism is popular at the moment. Alex Holder, content director for Elle UK, compellingly summarized these developments in the Guardian earlier this year: “Sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does. And don’t the big brands know it.” How to go about this exactly, they don’t know, however. In the Harvard Business Review Douglas Holt, founder of The Cultural Strategy, sneered that the big brands’ efficient marketing machines lead to “mediocrity when it comes to cultural innovation”.
The laws of marketing have remained basically unchanged: in order to count, a brand will have to become a part of the cultural landscape. This takes courage. Heineken, pride of the Netherlands, is currently receiving international praise for its new campaign ‘World Apart - An Experiment’, in which two people with opposite opinions have to construct a bar together and ask each other questions. The videos went viral, along with the hashtag #OpenYourWorld.
Advertising still serves as a dynamo for emancipation. For some commercials, then, you may be better off switching off your ad blocker.