Estonian Ekspress Interview

In late August the Estonian national newspaper, Ekspress, published an interview with me about advertising and public space. Merit Karise, the interviewer, has supplied an English version below.

As a result of this interview Merit was invited to give a “presentation about alcohol advertising and youth at a roundtable that took place in our Parliament on Oct 9th, and where MPs, the representative of our President and rep. of Chancellor of Justice took part.” Since then there has been talk about bringing her to the Economic Affairs Committee of Parliament where legal changes in alcohol advertising regulation can be made.

By the way, the article references my personal work outside the Anti-Advertising Agency, viewable on, and an interview I did with Rob Walker for Murketing’s Q&A section.

Interview for Estonian Ekspress, August 30, 2007 (Merit Karise, teacher of advertising and advertising critique at Tartu Art School)

You don’t paint on canvas and you don’t show two flickering TV screens facing each other in an empty gallery. Your gallery is the public space of cities and often you don’t give any sign to your viewer that it is art that she/he is seeing. Why is that?

I think there’s 2 reasons for that.

One, is that the white cube and “modern art” don’t come naturally to me. I grew up in my parents furniture shop and worked in garages though my teens and twenties. When I started art school, I had never been to a contemporary art museum. My creative background was punk rock, film and radio. When I made art, I wanted the people I knew to understand it – the people who worked with me in the motorcycle shop, or the friends and family I had. These were working class people more than “cultural class” people. I realize now that I walk in both worlds, but at the time I got started I was very much in the former. When I finally started going to museums, a lot of the work I just didn’t understand and it didn’t speak to me.

The other reason is because when I made art, I wanted to speak in a language people understand. I see art as a form of communication. If one uses the language of say, the abstract expressionists or minimalism, that’s not an everyday language that people understand. Not to devalue the content of the message of say, Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, or any other modern artist, but the way that their message is presented requires a certain educational level, cultural background, knowledge of art history, and so on in order to truly appreciate it beyond it’s form. It is not accessible to say, the person you would meet riding a bus or waiting in line at the post office. If they don’t like the way it looks, and they don’t understand the message or the context in which the work emerged, there’s nothing left for them to access. However, everyone understands the language of popular culture, advertising, graffiti, politics, and social interaction. So why not use these forms?

As far as why these things happen in the street – that’s where people are. When I show in a gallery, I’m lucky if a few hundred people come. If I show in the street, hundreds walk by every hour. The trick is getting the hundreds of people on the street to pay attention like the people in the gallery do.

If I gave signs that it was art, people would be able to say, “Oh, that’s art” and dismiss it as such. If you don’t know what it is, you think about it more. When what we expect happens, we don’t think. When something unexpected happens, we start thinking. What is this? Why is it here? Did someone make this? Why? What does it mean?

Again, art is a form of communication. Using the language, an artist can speak to the audience. What I work towards (achieving sometimes) is moving beyond speaking to the audience to having a conversation with the audience.

As you mentioned AAA, let’s talk about your work that targets advertising. US has had advertising in all traditional media channels for more than 50 years, Estonia for 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed. I wonder what is the difference between how people in USA and Estonia see advertising?

In my experience, if you asked US citizen’s “is advertising manipulative?” most would say yes. They don’t trust the industry. They know that advertising is a well funded, researched, powerful ubiquitous voice that is meant to persuade the public. They have some understanding of the impact it can have on body image, consumerism, mass culture, and so on. However, when asked “are you affected by advertising?” they say things like “no, I don’t pay attention to it. I hardly see it. I don’t make decisions based on it.” Everyone knows it works, yet everyone also thinks it doesn’t work on them. But this is impossible!

This is also the ideal scenario for advertising. If the messages are part of the ambiance, then they are not being considered in any thoughtful way. They enter your brain unchecked, without critical thought – and this is how the messages have the most influence.

What do you think is the damage done so far by advertising in US, and how has it changed people’s imagination and ideals?

Advertising and public relations techniques grew up with the US tobacco industry. Back when cigarettes were hand rolled, the change started with the invention of a mechanical cigarette roller – thus creating more supply for the product than demand. It was advertising’s job to create demand for cigarettes where there was very little before – literally changing the culture to the advantage of business. We all know how this worked out. When it was beginning to be discovered how dangerous cigarettes were, the advertising and public relations people worked even harder to minimize the effect of the information by deflecting the criticism, discrediting research, funding counter research to cloud the issue, etc. Simultaneously, efforts to improve public health by regulating cigarette smoking and taxing cigarette sales were attacked as if it was a threat to an American’s personal freedom of choice. The cigarette industry has consciously aligned itself with the image of the American rebel, free spirit, and iconoclast, despite the fact that smoking cigarettes makes you a physically dependent on a corporate product that will harm your health and eventually kill you. In a disgusting way, it is rather brilliant.

So brilliant in fact that today, the automobile industry is looking towards the cigarette industry for lessons on how to deal with global warming and the destruction of the environment caused by their industry. They follow in the tobacco industry’s footprints by discrediting climate science, creating their own counter-research to confuse the public, and aligning automobile driving with ideas of personal freedom.

These are examples of advertising at it’s most manipulative and most harmful. Yet, these ideas are not part of a broad public knowledge in the US.

Beyond some of the examples I have mentioned above, I think the biggest problem is the most abstract. Stated simply, advertising is a system of control that limits the public imagination.

If you look at advertising beyond the product it’s selling, it is also communicating other messages. Messages about what is normal in our lives. It’s normal to smoke cigarettes, to buy clothes that are in fashion, to buy new cars, new homes, to buy everything new, to eat food that may not be healthy, to behave in ways that may not be healthy. Not only is it normal, “you deserve it.” “You’ve earned it.” Advertising tells us that buying these things will eventually lead to complete personal satisfaction, health, and happiness – it’s always just around the corner. Yet through our entire lives, we’ve never made it around that corner. These messages distract us all (me included) with this endless, fruitless pursuit.

Also, because advertising is in more and more places, it’s presence becomes normal. It goes unquestioned. It’s hard to imagine a world without it. Literally, some people can’t do it. Without the ability to imagine some other paradigm, how can we ever make changes toward something better?

You work in opposition to advertising, you critisize it, but you are not outraged or angry, like for example Kalle Lasn. You prefer to use the kind of attitude and humour that makes people think and laugh. I guess it is probably a matter of personality too, but do you think your approach is more effective and why?

I do get outraged, disgusted… I do get angry. But I don’t see expressing that as being very effective. Would you choose to listen to an angry person be angry? It’s not fun, right?

On the other hand, we have a history of social campaigns here in the US designed around guilt. “Look at these starving children, for the price of one of your fancy coffee drinks, this child could eat for a week.” And that doesn’t work well either. Guilt is not necessarily a motivator for people to act or to change. But the underlying thought is “if people could see this problem like I do, if they knew what I know, then they would change.” But that isn’t how people work. For example, everyone who smokes knows that it’s lethal, but they do it anyway. The way people make decisions is very complex.

I find humor is much more effective. People tend to be open to analyzing society through the lens of a joke and in that way, humor can also highlight how ridiculous social norms are. When people see me at a table that says “I WILL TALK WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING” they laugh. But they also, eventually, think about why it’s funny. It’s not a joke – with a set up and a punchline – but it’s funny because it’s so unusual. So then, why is it unusual? A viewer may not ask these exact questions in such a clear way, but I believe the thoughts come.

Humor is part of who I am, but I do use it is a tactic to communicate with people about things they may not want to talk about or face. It’s the most effective method I have found.

Now that you’ve mentioned your tactics, let’s talk about your goals too. In an earlier interview you said that your message is not “burn it all down”, but “change the laws”. What else do you advise?

Well, I don’t expect business to behave better out of conscience. The nature of capitalism is to make profit. Historically we’ve seen that the quest for profit has come at the expense of freedom, childhood, even human lives. So expecting advertisers to do things differently “just because” seems naive.

On the other hand, it’s always been government that steps in and regulates capitalism when citizens push for change. After years of pressure from the abolition movement, it was legislation that ended slavery in the US, (which was a very profitable venture). Protests organized people like Mother Jones resulted in legislation ending child labor (child labor was also very good for business).

Most importantly, legislation prevents advertising from running even more wild than it already does. For example, in the early 1960s, billboards on American highways were out of control, unregulated. They were so dense in places that they covered each other. LadyBird Johnson (President Lyndon Johnson’s wife) actually pushed for legislation, called the 1965 Highway Beautification Act that regulated advertising on highways and stemmed the problem. There are several states in the U.S. that have banned billoards.

This is one of the important roles of government, this is something individual citizens or community organizations can’t do, which is to regulate business. What individuals can do is put pressure on the government to make these regulations, because the laws wont get made unless we ask.

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