There isn’t much of a legitimate “free speech” anymore. We feel like there is, but let’s take a real step back and think about this for a second.
Where do you practice free speech? First, we have to rule out pretty much the entire internet, because if you’re posting via social media, you’ve agreed to a Terms of Service that gives the service permission to silence any speech, and since they are a private organization and not part of the government, they are not violating the First Amendment. Even if you’re posting via your own website, odds are that you’re using some form of blogging software or, at the very least, a commercial hosting service that has its own ToS. Perhaps they’re not very heavy-handed, but they sure comply with those takedown requests pretty quickly and without question.
No, free speech almost requires a public space, a physical public space, to truly be free. At one time, that wasn’t a problem. We used to congregate downtown, walking from one local shop to the next, socializing on the public sidewalk, in the public town square. When we felt wronged, we came to that same town square to air our grievances. Others heard our voices and decided whether to join or to disagree. It was a pretty pure form of democracy, if you really think about it. Actual people, using their actual voices, and everyone free to join or to walk away, or even to counter-protest.
These days, we don’t meet in the public square. The square is dead. Downtown is boarded up. When we need to socialize or pick up a new widget of some kind, we go to the superstore or the mall. There’s something important to remember about those places: Even their parking lots are private property. You do not have an inalienable right to express yourself on private property. If they wish, the owners can have you forcibly removed. Not much free speech to be had in an area like that.
Even Zucotti Park, the first true home of the Occupy movement, isn’t really a park: The space is privately owned and, because of this, Bloomberg and his “personal army” were able to remove the protesters on a whim.
These days, we don’t walk… we drive. The roadways are littered with billboards and big, glowing signs with familiar logos and brand names. The messages tell us what we need to buy and why: This car will make you look professional to your boss, that gym will help you stop being such an undesirable fat-ass, this fast food will somehow make you better at basketball. These brands are forcibly talking to us; they can afford free speech that is seen and heard by everyone, and they have the advantage of never having to listen to our response. We can’t make them stop, and we can’t talk back.
Or maybe, in a way, we can.
Adbusting isn’t a new idea. The idea of subverting mass marketing through defacement of mass marketing has been around for at least 80 years. Posters from the 1930s urge consumers to become “Toucher Uppers” of public cigarette ads. Brigades were active in the 1990s defacing billboards and bench ads to deliver a more honest message about what the brands were selling. Obviously, these acts are illegal and I wouldn’t encourage you to participate (actually, I would) so I want to present something we can do, for now.
Below, you’ll see an adbust I created today to denote the signing of Rory McIlroy by Nike Golf. You see, Nike doesn’t actually make things… they tell subcontractors in third world countries to make cheap stuff and slap a swoosh on it, then they claim it as “their product.” All they really do is put their logo on things… cool things, like college football jerseys, your local basketball court’s backboards, or golf clubs used by really good golfers. Once everyone associates that brand with all those really cool things, they’re convinced that they need to be part of that culture… except it’s not culture. It’s just a made-up and well-marketed corporate logo, a machine for greed and consumerism.
The idea was based on one of Nike’s first advertisements featuring Rory, which can be found via an image search at your favorite search engine, but I added a real quote from Rory, who openly acknowledges that all the clubs are pretty much made by the same factories anyway… and yet he’s accepting about 450 years’ worth of the average retail worker’s salary to pretend that Nike is somehow different. And people buy it.
And they need to know they’re being ripped off.
You can easily contribute to helping them learn by creating your own graphics using open-source software such as GIMP to create graphics which resemble these famous brands’ ads and posting them everywhere… not just on big social networks, but on the bulletin board at your college, or the lightpost downtown, or right there in the shoe aisle at your local athletic shoe chain store. It’s relatively risk-free and, just perhaps, it will get them thinking about how much money they’re wasting trying to prove to the corporations that they’ve chosen to obey the advertising.
The point is that standing up to corporations isn’t easy when they seem to have centralized and monopolized free speech, but there’s small, easy, low-risk things you can do to talk back… and to counter the message they’re sending to the consumers in your town or on your social network. Any impact has an effect, so don’t think that you have to climb a billboard to start changing hearts and minds. All you really need is a printer, or even a few markers if you’re really talented. Get out there and bust some ads.