Sarcasm: a Tool For Criticism
The widespread use of sarcasm as a critical tool in the modern world is something to be expected. Sarcastic remarks directed against the consumer culture dates back to at least the 1970s, and the term itself was first documented in Oxford English Dictionary in 1695. Even though the idea of using sarcasm as a weapon for criticism is not entirely new, it is still effective to this day and has become a tool often used by the creatives to build resistance against the culture of mindless mass consumption. The modern language of marketing and advertising provokes the so-called peaceful protests by individual designers and is also the reason for the emergence of a number of movements such as subvertizers and anti-brand activists, for whom sarcasm is the main language for expressing their position.
Subvertisement as a whole can be interpreted as a strategy for resistance against the culture of advertising, a somewhat peaceful protest. As claimed by Special Patrol Group in the interview for Huckmag (2016) ‘Not only does advertising frequently promote negative stereotypes, but it also dominates our visual realm and privileges extrinsic behaviors over intrinsic.’, which is what the members of the movement fight against. While it is hard to say when exactly subvertising originated as a method, the history of organized mass-subvertisement dates back to at least the 1970s. The earliest known form of subvertising belongs to the Billboard-Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions, also known as the B.U.G.A.U.P. collective, and was directed against tobacco advertising in 1973. Sometime later in 1977, the Billboard Liberation Front, also known as BLF, was founded in San Francisco. Their practice was directed towards what they called “improvement” of the outdoor advertising, with the longterm goal to inspire others to do the same. Both B.U.G.A.U.P. and BLF still run blogs that give advice to prospective practitioners and comment on their history.
Even though subvertising is a relatively modern term it can be used to describe any kind of action taken to subvert ads. This can vary from spontaneous actions in the graffiti style to the more organized and polished modern campaigns. Traditionally, subvertising has been driven by a variety of reasons and motivations: from sarcastic remarks and objections towards individual products and the consumer culture to satirical notes and comments directed at political leaders. Even though the techniques for modifying, manipulating, and reflecting upon certain subjects may remain mostly the same, today's subvertisers usually form more organized groups with a more specific vision. As Thomas Dekeyser (The Conversation, 2015) notes: ‘Today, the practice of subvertising is reaching novel heights. Collectives are starting to connect globally to form an ever-increasing force of resistance against the visual and mental implications of advertising.’ The reason for that is the rapid speed of consumer culture and aggressive advertisement expansion and political disagreements, that have reached new heights. All of it has provoked more extreme reactions and the need for more organized actions.
In terms of action, subvertising mainly consists of transforming the original or creating a new piece based on a particular ad. It promotes building resistance against both the visual and psychological effects of advertisement. In addition to this, it inspires critical thinking and reaction towards the modern-day adverts and the modern-day language of the capitalistic society. An example of such actions is a project by The Yes Man collective, where they recruited thousands of social activists to distribute 100,000 copies of a spoof New York Times Newspaper. The spoof made by members of the collective consisted of several fake articles and images, that were meant to look authentic when placed in what looked like a commonly trusted source. The goal was to use a tangible and trusted medium, in their case the New York Times, to argue for a specific future (The Yes Men, 2008).
Another movement with similar ideas is anti-brand activists. Their main goals are intended to illustrate ethical issues related to the advertised products. Whereas in subvertisement, the range of mediums varies from logo parodies, poster manipulation, and even video works, the main medium used by anti-brand activists is ironical spoof ads and precise doppelgängers of existing adverts and campaigns. The doppelgängers get pejoratively changed and spread via social media, blogs, and websites, such as Ad Busters. Such campaigns have proven to be quite effective, as Markus Giesler notes in the Journal of Marketing (2012) ‘A 2012 study concluded that doppelgänger brand images were able to
negatively affect sales’.
One of such spoof ads shared by Ad Busters (2011) is the Fashion Slashin’ series by Nancy Bleck. She mocks ads and campaigns from worldwide famous fashion companies and the beauty stereotypes they promote. Typically, such campaigns display borderline anorexic look for women and overly muscular bodies for men, often putting the advertised images through intense photoshop manipulations upon releasing to enhance the resemblance of a particular beauty standard. Bleck explores the reality behind such images and mocks the unrealistic body standards and unhealthy body image by recreating the adverts, that display the opposite body types than normally promoted in the fashion world and working with slogans that represent the behind the scenes world of the fashion advertisement much more accurate than the original ones. Bleck, N. 2011, Fashion Slashin’. Reality for Men
Another example of similar reflection and use of sarcasm although via different mediums is Tom Sachs’ practice and his series called Cultural Prosthetics in particular. First known for his installation Hello Kitty Nativity that depicts traditional nativity scene that he created for Barney's shop in New York, his work focuses and reflects upon the obsession with consumerist culture and the influence the world of advertising has on the society. From the very beginning, Sachs did not hesitate to change the classic motives to fit his style; For the Hello Kitty Nativity, he replaced the key characters with contemporary pop-culture figures. The Three Kings were made to look like Bart Simpson, the Virgin Mary was replaced with the pop singer Madonna, wearing a leather outfit and posed with her legs spread, and instead of the Christ figure, Sachs placed the children's toy Hello Kitty, shown as a cat with a
beanie on its head. The new characters were all dressed in clothes by Chanel and Hermes, and the McDonald’s logo was placed over the crib. This way Sachs draws attention to the problem of brand obsession and the culture of consumerism, where everything means nothing yet pretends to have a deeper meaning. The installation was taken down soon after due to many angry calls from the offended by the Christ-cat religious activists. Sachs argues to have chosen Hello Kitty precisely for the reason of it not having a meaning, which makes the negative reaction that the installation caused even more ironic than the original piece. ‘She does not have a TV show, she only exists as plastic crap. In this time of consumerism, there is nothing like that. Everything really tries to mean something’, states Sachs (Artist Talk, 2015). Sachs, T. 1994, Hello Kitty Nativity, [Duct tape, synthetic polymer paint]
This was followed by Sachs’ first solo exhibition in 1995 called Cultural Prosthetics. As a part of the project, Sachs combined high-end fashion brands with weapons and created grenade sculptures with the Hermes logo, a Glock pistol combined with Tiffany identity, and a makeshift rifle. For an exhibition called Creativity is the Enemy that took place later that year, he added the Chanel guillotine, which later became one of his signature pieces and the Prada concentration camp model to the list of installations. Therefore, instead of looking dangerous and deadly the weapons looked glamorous and desirable just from the added elements of famous branding. As mentioned in the exhibition review on the Trend Hunter portal (Young, 2013), ‘Decapitating in designer style, modern society would probably make it legal thanks to the branding scrawled all over it. The allure of the Chanel name would put anyone in a trance, which seems more dangerous that this beheading machine.’ On the one hand, the quote describes the effect the media has on society perfectly; Paired with comments from all over social media, it is evident that even such a deadly weapon become something to be desired, simply by having a popularised logo on it. Sachs, T. 1995, Tiffany Glock (Model 19), [cardboard, thermal adhesive, ink]
On the other hand, the whole series and especially the Chanel Guillotine could easily refer to the death sentence people's uncontrollable consumption is giving the world. Sachs sarcastically notes and mocks society's obsession with chic brands and reflects upon the consequences such obsession has.
Sachs, T. 1998, Chanel Guillotine (Breakfast Nook), [Mixed media]
As obvious as the effect the media has on society is, it is not easy to resist. As noted by Sachs in his interview for The Talks (2016), ‘This is something that has been plaguing me my whole life: the effect advertising has over our self-image. Even though we understand that we continue to be part of the addiction and contribute to its power.’ Commenting and creating spoofs and satirical remarks on the market whilst still being part of it creates cognitive dissonance. Both Sachs’ practice and subvertisement movement can be seen as antipodes of the unhealthy nature of the aggressive advertisement and as a rebellion against the culture of capitalist society, yet it can not exist outside it. Creators are still part of the consumer culture and still engage with brand machines, that they fight against. Whether it is buying a new pair of underwear or a new phone, without putting themselves into complete social isolation they are forced to engage with what they believe is wrong. Sachs notes that he is a victim of the consumerist system as much, as he benefits from the luxury of the experience (Robertson, 2016).
The main goal of the projects such as Cultural Prosthetics and Fashion Slashin’ are meant to prevent the advertisement industry from establishing false values and to build resistance against the culture of mindless mass consumption. In short, both anti-brand activists and individual creatives such as Tom Sachs work against the mass-market machine, political manipulation, and toxic standards to create a healthier society using sarcasm and irony as a tool. Whereas the main language for such actions is either sarcastic remarks or ironical spoof projects, the majority of activists cannot exist outside of what they fight against, therefore creating cognitive dissonance. In such a scenario, sarcasm might not only work as a provocative gesture to gain attention and build a “better” society but also a coping mechanism of some sort.
Overall, the consumer culture that gets glorified also provokes a wave of sarcastic remarks from the creatives all over the world. It is impossible to ignore the negative aspects of consumerism, the unhealthy stereotypes and beauty standards the industry promotes, and the intense obsession with the brands promoted by the world of advertising. In such conditions, the widespread use of sarcasm as a tool for criticism is to be expected. The modern language of marketing and advertising provokes the so-called peaceful protests, the emergence of various anti-brand movements, and practice by individual creatives aimed to build resistance against false values and the culture of mindless mass consumption. For the majority of such activists, sarcasm and irony are the main languages for expressing their beliefs and a tool to create a healthier society free of toxic stereotypes and unhealthy obsessions promoted by the consumerist society.