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  • Subvertising:The Art of Altering the Message
  • Kristine Somerville

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Hogre, Subvertising

[End Page 97]

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Hogre, Social Cleansing, Elephant & Castle roundabout, London, 2016

In the 1931 movie version of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Will Rogers plays radioman Hank Martin. On a stormy night, he's called to a mansion on a hill to deliver a battery to a mad scientist with a giant radio that transmits sound waves from the past. A bolt of lightning strikes, and a coat of arms topples on Hank, knocking him out. He wakes to the lance point of one of King Arthur's knights. Hank escapes being burned at the stake by using his awareness of an impending solar eclipse noted in his little black date book to cast a "Yankee curse." Freed, he is made principal minister of the king and uses his knowledge from the future to modernize the kingdom, setting up a Ford-like assembly line in the castle. As he tours the court's new operation with the king, he explains, "You create the supply; I'll create the demand." King Arthur asks, "By what magic do you hope to achieve this?" to which Hank replies, "A special magic called [End Page 98]

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Jordan Seiler, Civilian, Harlan Levey Projects, 2017

advertising. It makes you spend money you haven't got for things you don't want."

Since the first American ad agency opened in Philadelphia in 1843, advertising has had an image problem. It is a youthful profession that has gone through many cycles, from hard sell to soft sell and back again. It has also boldly changed with the times by taking on new media. Yet the industry has always been regarded with suspicion, culminating in what today is called subvertising. Activist artists alter ads in bus-stop shelters and on banners and billboards by adding letters and images to change a brand's meaning or by creating a new advertisement that resembles the familiar brand but says something completely different. The new messages range from anticapitalist to the promotion of human rights and environmental protection. Subvertising is in some ways reminiscent of the attitude toward the industry in its early days, when no [End Page 99]

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Jordan Seiler, Republika, Warsaw, Poland, giclée print with digital augmentation, 2017

legitimate business would resort to advertising and no bank would lend to one that did.

Despite being mistrusted, from the start, advertising rapidly emerged as a lucrative business. Early admen, working as space brokers for newspapers, discovered that they could increase a paper's revenue by a third. The ads endorsed mostly patent medicines, which were neither patented nor medicinal. These dubious remedies—Drake's Plantation Bitters, St. Jacob's Oil and Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound—promised to cure everything from liver problems and respiratory afflictions to sexual dysfunctions. Most contained a high percentage of alcohol, while others mixed in doses of either opium or morphine. By the turn of the century patent medicines were a $75-million business. One critic complained, [End Page 100]

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Jordan Seiler, Carry On, Harlan Levey Projects, 2017

"There is no evil in America today greater than the passion for self-doctoring."

Over the next fifty years, advertising for small household goods posted quieter, more believable claims on barns, houses, and railcars. Unlike patent medicines, these wares were generally useful and helped to improve the credibility of the growing industry, yet it was hard to shake the sense that private greed eclipsed considerations of public good.

In the 1880s, tiring of cheap handbills, circulars, and outdoor signs as their medium, advertisers set their sights on the prestigious magazine market. Harper's, Century, and the Atlantic made their revenue from subscriptions and newsstand sales. Fearing a loss of literary integrity, they resisted the promise of ad revenue that would allow them to lower [End Page 101]

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Bill Posters, Nike Crime (top), McBomb (bottom)

prices and increase distribution...


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pp. 97-113
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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