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Urban Guerrillas of France Declaring War on Ads

They deface billboards, saying the commercials amount to harassment. 'Every day I wash my brain with advertising,' one graffiti artist writes.

March 14, 2004|John Leicester | Associated Press Writer

PARIS — Suzanne, prim with neat snowy hair, gray anorak and white shirt fastened at the collar with a blue brooch, glanced furtively up and down the subway platform bustling with out-on-the-towners.

Slowly, the station emptied; the coast was clear. Spinning on her heels, a mischievous glint in her soft blue eyes, she whipped a red wax crayon from her handbag and, wielding it like a sword, scrawled her fury across a billboard advertising home appliances.

"TOO MANY THINGS, NOT ENOUGH POETRY!" she wrote.

Pow! Thus another blow was struck in a fight raging in France against advertising. The attackers are a small but determined band of campaigners for whom ads are a plague. Their battlegrounds are the tunnels and platforms of Paris' subway, and bus stops in other towns. Their targets: companies that make capitalism tick.

Organizing over the Internet, hunted by the forces of order, these urban guerrillas are focusing debate on advertising's power. Is there too much of it? Should we fight back?

For Suzanne, 63, a political militant since she first threw stones at police during student riots that shook France in 1968, the answer to those questions is yes.

"Capitalism needs consumerism to survive," she said. "If we get rid of advertising, we get rid of consumerism, and that will get rid of capitalism."

It's hard to envisage the foundations of the global economy toppling anytime soon. But the anti-advertising movement has provoked a counterattack from French advertising giant Publicis and Paris' public transportation operator, the RATP.

Joining forces, the two firms are taking 62 anti-ad militants to court, seeking $1.2 million in damages for destruction wreaked on billboards.

Suzanne is not among the 62, but the threat of fines scares her enough that she won't give her surname. Nevertheless, she campaigns on, riding the Metro with a band of like-minded teenagers one recent Saturday, trailing destruction in their wake.

Pssssshhhhhh. Louis, 16, worked quickly but efficiently with a can of black spray paint. "ADVERTISING NUMBS YOU" read his still-dripping slogan on a billboard for the movie "Shrek 2."

"Walt Disney. Hollywood. Big budget. No good," he muttered by way of explanation before sprinting down the platform to attack another billboard before a train pulled in.

"It's joy," he said, describing how it felt to spray. "It's a real pleasure to finally be able to resist."

France's anti-advertising campaign to some extent dovetails with a larger movement against globalization that regularly protests meetings of the World Trade Organization, the Group of Eight industrial nations and other "capitalist" bodies.

One of Suzanne's band, Christophe, 17, said he traveled to the Alps in June to protest a G-8 summit.

Suzanne's group changed subway lines every three or four stations to avoid being spotted by security agents. At each station, they first followed other passengers heading toward the exits. Then, having determined that no guards were lurking in the tunnels, they doubled back to set to work spraying and tearing down ads.

In all, militants damaged 3,500 posters that Saturday, says Metrobus, a Publicis subsidiary that sells the subway's advertising space. It says it has to compensate firms whose ads are targeted.

Suzanne's group alone attacked more than 50 billboards in at least eight stations. At one stop, they happened across other campaigners slapping up stickers marked, "The struggle against ads continues." Other stickers read, "Every day I wash my brain with advertising," mocking laundry detergent ads.

"Advertising is a one-way message that amounts to harassment," said Nicolas, a teacher in his 30s. "We should have the right to refuse it."

The RATP, which transports millions of Parisians each day, is unhappy to find itself on the front line. It believes that Paris' public is on its side, citing a survey it commissioned last month in which 73% of 800 people questioned said advertisements make their public transport journeys "more agreeable and less monotonous" and 75% said they disapproved of the anti-ad militants.

"These people are on the wrong side of the law. We can't let this type of action go unchallenged," said Fabien Contino, RATP spokesman.

The RATP says the $74 million to $86 million it earns each year from selling advertising space could buy 300 new buses. Contino said ticket prices would rise by 5% if there were no ads, an increase equal to just seven cents.

But in a small victory for the campaigners, the RATP freed up space on 47 billboards in 24 stations for people to write what they like for 10 days, beginning March 8.

"The RATP offers this space of free expression," said a company notice on one white board at the Strasbourg-Saint Denis station. "Thank you for respecting this initiative by reacting only on this poster and by avoiding all injurious and discriminatory comments."

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