"May 68 has done more for the glory of admen than for
the glory of revolution." Régis Debray
"Advertising thinks we’re morons, because advertising makes morons of us”. That’s the slogan the fashion designer agnès b. remembers from “mai 68”. She never advertised her label ever since.
This year we’re celebrating 50 years of May 68, the upheaval of French society and beyond. Consumer society, not especially advertising, was one of its favourite targets. However, the slogans of the Situationists will inspire the admen of the time. Their direct and provocative nature will filtrate through and make their way to the most famous campaigns we’ll see in France from then on. After all, an effective slogan whether political or commercial is exactly the same in nature.
"Beauty is in the street" - May 68 poster
A student revolt
May 68 started in the Faculty of Nanterre, North-West of Paris. Male students led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit demanded the end of segregation and the right to visit girls in their dormitory. The movement of the “22 mars” was born and was to literally change the face of the world. It exploded in a student revolt in the Latin Quarter where violent clashes between the CRS (riot squad) and students took place. It triggered a general strike when France literally stopped functioning. The Cannes Festival was halted, state TV and radio shut down, transports stopped running as well as everything else. It eventually led to the General De Gaulle’s downfall, Cohn-Bendit was declared enemy of the République and banned from France for many years.
"Down with show business-consumerist society" - May 68 poster
During that period, a collective called “L’Atelier populaire” was screen-printing posters with slogans that made history and still resonate with us. If their attacks were mainly targeted at the political power in place and the old-guard, consumerism and media were also declared enemies. This wasn’t new. Let’s remember that Vance Packard’s famous book Hidden Persuaders was published in 1957. David Ogilvy famously said:”The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife.” and Bill Benbarch’s witty campaigns for Volkswagen embodied the constant tension between consumer as a willing participant or a victim of “La Société du spectacle” of Guy Debord. The Situationnists took the latest view by resolutely taking the side of the worker-consumer against the powers in place, represented by politicians and “patrons” (CEOs).
"I don't want to become a machine!" - May 68 Graffiti
“Filter out the worst and keep the best!” - Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet
However, a few figures of the advertising world emerged from this period. Intrigued by the events in the Latin Quarter, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet the founder of Publicis, went down there to take a look. Despite the ugliness of the scenes he witnessed he wrote in his autobiography: “I also saw the best. A Joie de vivre, imagination, generosity that sweeps everything away […] So let’s give young people imagination, if not the power, at least all the opportunities to bring down rotten prejudices, out of date thinking, paralyzing habits.” We’ll see the emergence of creatives such as Philippe Michel whose agency CLM/BBDO conceived perhaps the most famous campaigns of them all for Avenir posters in 1981, and Jacques Séguéla who founded RSCG and notoriously titled his autobiography “Don’t tell my mother I work in advertising, she thinks I’m a pianist in a brothel”.
Notorious first French poster teaser
campaign for Avenir by CLM/BBDO
"2nd September I take my top off"
"4th September I take my bottom off"
"AVENIR the poster contractor who keeps its promises"
“Shoplifters welcome” – Jamie Reid sticker, early 70’s London
Advertising is merely a mirror of the society we live in. The 80’s were an exciting time for advertising in Paris when I started. As a copywriter I never forgot the lesson the Situationnists gave us. This was only reinforced by the fact that Punk was directly inspired by the movement. Indeed, another anarchist was prowling the streets of Paris whilst this revolution was taking place. His name was Malcolm McLaren. He imported the spirit of May 68 directly onto the streets of London and with the help of his Situationnist friend Jamie Reid who designed the Sex Pistols LP cover, revolutionized creativity, aesthetics and culture forever. Never mind the bollocks hey!
E. Leclerc supermarkets campaign by Australie directly inspired by May 68 posters - 2005
Slogans of that time may seem anti-advertising in their attacks against the consumer society but creatives would be better off learning a lesson or two from them for their sharp wit and relevance. Amidst the bland landscape of digital advertising in particular, it is crucial more than ever to be seen and heard amidst the cacophony. Taking up guerilla tactics may turn out to be one the best solution. Dissenting voices still exists. Let’s not see May 68 celebrations as a nostalgia trip but a wake-up call and a warning against inertia and mediocrity.
From street walls to hashtags
Consumer associations are as old as consumerism itself. In France, the ARPP was created in 1935 and the ASA in 1962. However, we are seeing individuals using the same principals as advertisers in order to directly counter-act their influence on the consumers. Adbusters in Canada, Casseurs de Pub in France and Guerriglia in Italy have ingeniously subverted the ad world to reveal its perversity and negate its effects on us.
In 2015, the British collective Brandalism commissioned artists to create "subvertisements" for the UN's Climate Change Conference COP 21 taking place in Paris. They took over bus shelters with an ad of a Volkswagen convertible designed by Jonathan Barnbrook with the tagline "Drive cleaner. Or just pretend to".
However, the advent of digital has complicated the task of its critics. Google and Facebook (including YouTube and Instagram) are now swallowing 60% of all digital advertising spending and creative department in agencies are just a third of what they used to be. Policing advertising has become that much more difficult. But people are taking back control. The #metoo movement has shown that hard-hitting slogans created on the street are still far more potent than most advertising taglines. The French equivalent #balance ton porc (snitch your swine) was even more aggressive, true to the tradition of May 68 graffiti. A new exhibition at the Design Museum (Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008 - 2018) charts the growing influence of demonstration placards on politics up to the top.
As creatives, if we still have something to learn from May 68 it is the sheer audacity and lucidity of all these street copywriters. They embodied the spirit of the time and articulated the collective consciousness in taglines and aphorisms that have become immortal, engraved forever in our memories. Advertisers, take note.
N.B.: Facebook has found my blog unsuitable for publishing and has censored it... over the historical and notorious Avenir campaign (yes those tiny pictures are pornographic apparently). Just shows the schism between eras and countries, France and the USA to what constitutes suitable for public viewing. A huge poster in Paris is OK for France but a tiny picture on the very American Facebook is not. This is disturbing and doesn't bode well for the future of freedom of expression with American puritanism dictating us what to view.