On a recent morning in downtown San Francisco, I found myself being manipulated by advertising. No, really - the billboards all around were actually telling me where to go and what to do. I was standing in the midst of a crowded sidewalk, swiveling this way and that, scanning the skyline for secret messages, a cheap plastic compass in my hand (all of which may explain why passersby seemed to be cutting a wide swath around me). Suddenly I thought I spied something on a "Got Milk?" billboard at the corner of Kearney and Pine and made a beeline for the 30-foot-high sign, until I was directly underneath it and could read the fine print in the lower left hand corner. Sure enough, there it was - my latest instructions from above, directing me to go to a junkyard on the other side of town. I proceeded without questioning. Because when billboards start communicating directly with you, you tend to heed them.
Mind you, I'm not one of those people who suspect that all ads are embedded with hidden commands. It's just that in this instance, they actually were. I swear. The messages had been planted in the otherwise normal ads by a group of notorious billboard guerrilla artists who call themselves the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF). On this day, they had altered and customized a series of public billboards for my benefit, posting orders on the outdoor boards that instructed me where to go, what to do - even what cocktail to order, for God's sake. And they were watching me, to make sure I did it.
The whole strange episode started with a simple enough request on my part: I wanted to meet a somewhat legendary underground figure in the Bay Area who goes by the nom de guerre of Jack Napier. For the past quarter century, Napier has been one of the leaders of the BLF, a group of activists considered pioneers of the anti-advertising movement known as culture jamming. Culture jammers subvert and ridicule messages from advertisers, offering an alternative viewpoint. They work in various forms of media (from pirate broadcasting to corporate Website hacking), but when it comes to altering billboards, no one is more practiced or skilled than the BLF, established in the late 1970s by a trio of ne'er-do-wells that included Napier.
The group began prowling San Francisco in the dead of night, scaling billboards by rope and ladder, and pasting new improved headlines over the old ones. A few months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Napier noticed an ad for a radio station with the slogan, "Hits Happen - New X-100." By morning it had been smoothly transformed into an Exxon ad headlined, "Shit Happens." On a Camel electronic billboard, the BLF rewired the neon lettering, so that the glowing message became, "Am I dead yet?"
The BLF has attained a kind of cult-hero status. Wired recently dubbed them "The Monkey Wrench Gang of outdoor advertising." And D.S. Black of The San Francisco Examiner noted: "In this time of toxic information overload, our real heroes are cut-and-paste warriors like the BLF, who put themselves on the line to give us something to think about."
The owners of outdoor advertising companies tend to be less admiring. "What they're doing is self-indulgent grandstanding," says Rick Robinson, the creative director at Infinity Outdoor, America's biggest billboard company. He doesn't share the BLF's sense of humor, either: " 'Think Doomed?' [p. 54] Can't they come up with anything better than that? Here's an idea - how about 'Think First,' before you go up on the billboard?" Yes, Robinson acknowledges, it's a public space, "but what they're doing is still outside the law. How would you like it if these guys decided to repaint your house for you because they didn't like the color?"
But if imitation really is the highest flattery, the BLF has been paid the ultimate compliment by its adversaries on Madison Avenue. Culture jammers like Napier "have had a big influence on the look and tone of advertising in recent years," says Annie Finnegan, a creative director at Arnold Communications who has lectured on guerrilla advertising at Creative Circus. As Finnegan and other observers point out, a growing number of ads have become highly adept at co-opting and imitating culture jammed ads - such that it has become increasingly difficult to tell whether the graffiti on billboards is authentic or whether it has been inserted there by advertisers. Examples have included the Captain Morgan rum ads, in which the advertiser has crossed out headlines and scribbled all over the pretty pictures, as well as a recent Amstel Light campaign featuring posters that seemed to have been written by a crazed anarchist urging the public to avoid Amstel "at all costs," and warning of "impending doom." But the anti-ad style and sensibility extends beyond these rather obvious jammer rip-offs; on a much broader level, it can also be seen in many of the self-ridiculing "mockumentary" commercials that have flooded the airwaves, as well as in all those "don't believe the hype" messages emanating from Sprite and so many other mainstream advertisers striving to seem street-authentic and rebellious.
The question is, where does all this "self-jamming" by advertisers leave poor old culture jammers like Napier? Some, like the graffiti gang TATS Crew, have crossed over to the other side, creating street advertising for the likes of Coca-Cola. But Napier and the BLF haven't given up the fight. They've continued to subvert billboards - even those ads that strike a hip, countercultural pose. For example, the BLF changed the headlines on Apple's ubiquitous "Think Different" campaign to make them a bit more accurate and individualized. For poor Amelia Earhart, it was time to "Think Doomed." The Ted Turner headline became "Think Dividends."
What is most intriguing about someone like Napier is his sheer persistence. I couldn't help wondering how he'd managed, for so long, to avoid being swallowed by the great Blob of commercialism - which tends to suck up anything in the culture that moves, and especially that which moves against it (Lou Reed, bad-assed rappers, beat generation poets, Gandhi, graffiti artists, indie filmmakers, you name it). I wanted to ask Napier this question, but I soon discovered that it's not easy to get ahold of him. Maybe the main reason the Blob never got Jack Napier was simply that it could never get his damn phone number.
Napier's been underground for two decades, ever since his first billboard escapade, at age 19, landed him at the police station. He was wearing a gorilla suit at the time. "I was paraded through the station carrying my gorilla head, and the cops got a good laugh out of it," recalls Napier. They let him go with a warning. Napier learned valuable lessons: Always keep a lookout man. Trust no one. And don't wear gorilla suits.
Today, nobody aside from friends and fellow jammers knows where Napier lives or what he looks like. To meet with him, as I decided to do, you must go through an elaborate process of passing messages through a third party. Eventually Napier called me and agreed to meet, but was vague about details. "You'll be told what to do when you get here," he said. "Bring a lot of cab fare." (He also asked - and this puzzled me - "Are you spry?")When I arrived at the airport, he'd left a message at the gate directing me to an airport restroom stall, where a package had been taped to the back of the toilet bowl. Inside was a plastic compass and instructions to report, the next day, to a designated location in San Francisco's financial district.
And that's where I encountered my first custom-altered billboard; as it turned out, Napier had changed the copy of billboards at various locations around the city, planting instructional messages for me. The alterations were surprisingly unobtrusive - on most of the billboards, he'd inserted into the body of the ad a finely-lettered box of copy, that looked a bit like the warning labels on cigarette ads. It was something you wouldn't have spotted unless you were looking for it, as I was. Nevertheless, the sight of these subtly-altered billboards was oddly exhilarating. (I now see why interactive marketing gurus rave about the power of "one-to-one communication;" it's hard not to be impressed by an ad that singles you out.)
My first set of instructions, on the "Got Milk" board, said: "Check in trunk of '79 Lincoln at Ace Auto Dismantlers." When I arrived at Ace's junkyard, I told the yard boss that I needed to check in the trunk of a '79 Lincoln. He joked: "Is there a body in there?" To everyone's surprise, there was - a dummy clad in military fatigues. Cold-bloodedly, I reached in and rummaged through the pockets, finding an envelope with my next instructions. "Gotta go!," I said cheerily, as the junkyard crew was beginning to mutter and circle behind me. I was directed to another billboard a few blocks away, where I had to climb out of the taxi and stand in the middle of traffic so I could read the fine print on the board more closely. Then I got back in and said, "OK, now I know where I'm going next." The cabbie showed no sign of surprise. Maybe his passengers do this all the time.
The billboard directed me to a bar in Haight Ashbury, where I bought a drink (a Manhattan - strict orders) and received from the bartender an envelope with directions to a vintage clothing shop; there, I was to look for further instructions inside a red clutch purse. At the shop, I told the salesgirl the whole story of how I was tracking a culture jammer as I paid for the purse, then opened it. Nothing in there. Frustrated, I ripped the lining out, and there was my envelope, with directions to the next billboard. "Ohmigod, how did he do that?" the salesgirl exclaimed. "He must have, like, brought it into the dressing room with him and sewed it in." Or stolen the purse and then returned it, I suggested. That seemed to give her pause. "Isn't this creeping you out a little?" she asked.
I was drawing closer now. A billboard near Golden Gate Park told me to "Go to the Hotel Utah and order a boilermaker." At the Utah bar, I was referred to another billboard across the street, where I retrieved my final instructions: to go to the 22nd Street train station, wait for the train to depart, then - using my trusty compass - proceed south along the empty platform. This I did, in pitch darkness. As I reached the end of the eerily quiet platform, I thought I detected a presence behind me. Then I realized there were actually several people hovering back there, though I couldn't quite make them out. As I started to turn around, a voice said, "Keep walking straight ahead." I then encountered a trenchcoated figure in front of me, who extended a hand and introduced himself as Jack Napier. I was immediately taken aback by the large, protruding teeth and, above that, the horribly deformed nose.
"Nice mask," I said, as he led me into an old abandoned train tunnel beneath the platform.
They'd laid out a nice spread for me. Beer, sandwiches, potato chips - nothing fancy, but better than what you're apt to find in an abandoned tunnel. This was not the BLF's headquarters, just a temporary space they'd claimed for the evening. A half-dozen representatives of the 30-odd -member organization sat at a long table, illuminated by portable camera lights. One was dressed as a surgeon, another as a clown, another as a pig, and they used the names Vince Foster, Jack Ruby, and so forth. It was like being kidnapped by extremists at a Star Trek convention, and I didn't know whether to laugh or get really depressed that I was sitting here.
Around the table, they each answered questions, offering tidbits about themselves. They'd all been recruited by Napier over the years. All worked day jobs, some in advertising ("The irony is not lost on me," said Vince Foster, one of the ad-by-day, jam-by-nighters). Some of them struck me as a tad self-serious. At one point - I would characterize this as the low point of my evening - I found myself briefly discussing postmodernism with the pig.
But I immediately liked Napier, who had a sense of humor and was exceedingly polite. He apologized profusely for running me around town, and reminded me to keep my cab receipts. Indeed, Napier and his crew may be among the most thoughtful guerrillas around: They take great pains to avoid actually damaging the billboards they alter. On the surface of the boards, they carefully paste vinyl, canvas or paper attachments, which can easily be removed - though someone must climb a ladder to get them. Cognizant of that, Napier sometimes leaves a sixpack of beer up there on the billboard for the clean-up guy.
I also appreciated Napier's plainspokenness. When someone in the group began discussing comparisons between culture jamming and the French detournement intellectual movement, Napier barked: "Fuck that noise!" As he explained, the objective of billboard jamming is simple: have fun, screw with the media a bit, and get off a few good one-liners. "Whenever I see a billboard," Napier told me, "I find myself thinking: 'Wouldn't it be funnier if it said this?' So I change it."
Napier says he has nothing against advertising per se. "I actually like a lot of ads, anything that's clever," he said. "But I have to admit I'm pretty irate at a handful of billboard corporations controlling all the public spaces. I find that completely undemocratic and I didn't vote for it - and yet these billboards are in a public space and I have to look at them." He believes "those spaces belong to all of us," and that if messages are to be posted there, then everyone should be able to have a say in what goes on the boards.
Napier's group is hardly extreme in its political views. On the contrary: the BLF tends toward a playful, absurdist sensibility. Once, the group went after a cigarette billboard not out of anti-smoking sentiments, but because one of Napier's partners decided that the brawny bare-chested male man in the ad "might offend visiting foreign dignitaries and religious figures," Napier recalled. So they went around the city to each of the billboards and draped a paper bra across the model's chest.
The BLF believes that billboard-enhancement is a fine art, and demands subtlety and restraint. "First off, the alteration has to be high-quality work," Napier says. "If someone goes up and spraypaints 'Fuck Exxon' on a billboard, that does nothing for me. I like to see people who do creative technical work - making it look as though the billboard were done by the advertiser. But if the messages are blatantly and stodgily political I also have very little interest in it, even if it's technically well done. Because if it's a very straightforward and boring message, it's just not going to get through to anyone except those who already agree. My favorite billboards are ones that are enigmatic - the ones that people have a hard time figuring out right away. It sticks in their minds."
Mild-mannered though he may be, one thing that really irks Napier is the tendency of advertisers to imitate the work of culture jammers. "When I see ads that cross out their own headlines and write in something self-mocking, my first reaction is: they should be paying residuals to the BLF," he says. But Napier has his own way of dealing with it by mounting counter-strikes against the co-opters. For example, he encountered a Plymouth Neon billboard on which the oh-so-clever advertiser had made it appear as if a spray-can vandal had changed the original headline, "Hi," to "Hip," and also drawn a Mohawk on the car's roof. "First I was taken aback, and then I was pissed off," says Napier. "And then I thought, 'Shit, I'm not going to let them get away with that.' " Before long, he was up on the board in the wee hours, changing "Hip" to "Hype," and, for good measure, planting the image of a skull on the car's grille.
The BLF's latest small victory is creating its own Website (www.billboardliberation.com). This is not insignificant for a culture jammer: It enables a local group to take its message national, just like the ad guys do. And it means that the group's altered billboards - which tend to have a short life in meatspace, lasting only until some authority figure looks up, scratches his head, and says, "How the hell did that get up there?" - can now live on forever in downloadable photographic images in cyberspace. Napier believes the Website can help expose young people to culture jamming, and draw fresh blood to the movement; the site even includes beginner's instructions on how to alter a billboard.
Napier is fully aware that the war against advertising was decided years ago, in advertising's favor. "I have thought about this question of whether it's even possible anymore to question or ridicule advertising, given that it has become so accepted as the language of the culture," he says. "All I can say is, you have to at least try. If there isn't some kind of insurgent spirit popping up between the cracks, you might as well give it up as a society. We're not at that point yet - not even close."
That said, Napier led me out of the tunnel to his car - I was blindfolded so I couldn't see his license plate - and drove me back to my hotel. By the time I slipped off my mask, he'd gunned the engine and roared off to God knows where.
I heard from him about a week later, in response to an offer I'd passed his way. It had occurred to me, right after the meeting, that Napier's ironic sense of humor and his meticulous copy-placement skills might make him a great asset for one of today's street-smart, guerrilla-style agencies. And so I tried, shortly after the meeting in the tunnel, to hook him up with an agency. It wasn't an attempt to corrupt him; I just figured that after two decades of improving headlines at no charge, Napier deserved a shot at cashing in like everyone else. I approached Jeff Odiorne, whose San Francisco-based Odiorne Wilde Narraway & Partners specializes in outrageous billboards, "wild postings," and various guerrilla ad stunts, and told him of Napier's legendary billboard exploits. Odiorne seemed particularly intrigued when he learned that Napier wears a mask. "I'd love to talk to him," he said. "And I'd really love it if he'd wear his mask when he came in to the agency."
So I left a note, including Odiorne's phone number, at a local dive bar that Napier frequents. He responded to me by voicemail a few days later - directing me to a billboard, of course. It read: "You wanna buy us? 1st installment: $10,000, small bills. We'll call a drop." He didn't call a drop. And he never called the agency. It's kind of reassuring to know there's at least one die-hard culture jammer still out there, spurning offers and dodging the Blob.