I was struck recently by Charlott Baring’s very short and successful campaign against Protein World’s Are-You-Beach-Body-Ready? adverts. As a response to the online petition, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) were called out of their offices to conduct an “investigation.” I had in my imagination a pair of men in suits with clipboards and coffees-to-go standing there in a London Underground tunnel regarding the giant picture, and circling numbers from 1 to 10, trying to empirically document how offended they felt.
This sort of automated bureaucratic response seemed ridiculous, because the people had already decided to be rid of those adverts, and made a public spectacle of it. It used to be, in times gone by, that when we didn’t like an advert, we would quietly not buy the product. Now ordinary people get out their scissors, and glue and spray paint and make their views known. For a long time public space has been ruled by the voices of those with the money to project their message into it, and ordinary people felt constrained to silence by an unspoken sense of subservience to those powers. Something’s tipped, I think. Now we talk back. And we don’t need the ASA’s permission or agreement to do so. Public space is beginning to be won back as a place for the public’s voice.
If the ASA’s involvement felt like an absurdly unnecessary gesture, the news of an “investigation” also felt like a desperate attempt to claw power back upwards. The people could not be seen to have spoken, uninvited, into the discourse of public space. Imagine the chaos if people felt able to talk back to every piece of coercive consumerist propaganda. It felt like the ASA were trying to stamp the authority of the advertising industry back onto a situation that had already left their control. The emerging truth is – I hope – that we are no longer satisfied to have our lives regulated by the powers. We are feeling freer every day to speak for ourselves, and take back public space.