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Beheading Advertising

In an article to be published this fall in the Washington University Law Review, Sonia Katyal, a Fordham University law professor, coins the already-popular term “semiotic disobedience” (a Google search today yielded 400 mentions), which can be considered (as stated on Katyal’s paper) a modernization of John Fiske’s “Semiotic Democracy.”

The central argument is not new but is presented in a way that enlightens and greatly contributes with the conversation surrounding intellectual property in the public space, collective intelligence, and the role of artists as the quintessential “attention economists” (extensively discussed by Richard A. Lanham in The Economics of Attention). Talking about finding innovation at the intersection of disciplines…

In Katyal’s words, “the objective of semiotic disobedience is to correct the marketplace of speech by occupying and transforming the semiotic “codes” within advertising.” She goes on to explain the different degrees of disobedience, which range from vandalism to reclaiming public space.

In this context, I find the work of an unknown artist that operates in the Union Sq subway station (New York City) extremely interesting, this person goes beyond vandalism to carefully intervene indoor billboards and surgically behead the human subject of the advertisements. I first noticed her work a few months ago through the brilliant intervention of a Target piece in which we could appreciate a perfect white square substituting the head of a surreal model that was enjoying time at the beauty salon.

Far from connotations of violence or vandalism, the work of this artist signifies the emptiness in the advertising message. This person literally uncovers what everyone can see when confronted with one of these ads: that it is empty. In my opinion, this does not necessarily mean that all advertising is superficial or that advertising itself is an empty discipline, as McLuhan denounced over thirty years ago when he asserted: “all advertisements, advertise, advertising.”

This anonymous artist is giving us a practical lesson, a reminder that society changed quite some time ago, that the role of advertising can’t be detached from the responsibility of adding value to the people it touches, which translates in a radically different use of the public space. Art sponsorship anyone?