Just Another Conspiracy Theory?

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I'm in a back room at the Midtown North precinct, being questioned by two cops and a guy from Police Intelligence. "What exactly do you mean by the `Stop hiding behind the tried and true'?" he asks. It's 3 a.m. I'm not in the mood to explain my beliefs about advertising, but two people are in jail and these men think I'm part of some dangerous anti-religious organization.

"Well," I say with utmost seriousness and respect, "what I'm trying to say here is that a lot of advertising is boring. People should take more creative risks and do more original work."

They look at me like I'm a little strange. "So, you're protesting bad advertising?"

"Yes."

"What is bad advertising?"

I take a deep breath and tell them my philosophy about advertising. It's a long-winded and passionate speech. It feels like a conference call. "But what about, `Media has replaced religion as the opiate of the people'?"

He's still not convinced I'm not part of some anti-religious conspiracy. I've given them the list of a dozen slogans and a map of midtown advertising agencies to prove our motives.

They go through the list carefully and ask me to explain every slogan. Try explaining the ridiculously pompous, "We are the culture of image, you are the makers of our culture" to a bunch of cops in the middle of the night.

"Why do you hate advertising so much?"

"I don't hate advertising. It's just that advertising could be so much better if people took more risks and less meetings." Finally, I confess: "I'm a commercials director. This is just a bizarre form of advertising. You see, the company that I'm with is called Conspiracy."

Finally they get it and can't help but laugh. All three of them. But it's no laughing matter. What started as a marketing prank turned into an absurd Don Quixote comedy, then evolved into a nightmare.

It all began with a simple idea. We like to see ourselves as a Conspiracy of creative risktakers. Why not take that concept and apply it to our advertising? So we thought it would be funny to spray paint a series of mysterious slogans about advertising, media and creativity directly onto advertising agencies' doorsteps. We would then follow up with a press release denying any involvement in a language that made it clear that we were, of course, behind it.

We would back up the sidewalk slogans with a series of ads that showed a slogan on one page, and then "Just another Conspiracy theory?" on the other, with our website in small print. We planned the operation like a war, color coding all the New York agencies, drawing up extensive maps, and even staying up all night scouting and photographing the locations. We timed it with our print ads coming out in trade magazines.

We went out in vans, two teams of three. We had a blast, working until five in the morning. By dawn, we had left messages in front of almost every agency in New York. The next day we proudly went to inspect our work. To our horror, most of the slogans had been completely washed away. We had no idea how quickly building maintenance people get rid of graffiti. The campaign was a fiasco.

After our failure, we decided to take another chance and go out again. But this time, instead of spray painting right on the threshold of each agency, we would paint on the street corners near the agency. We figured that was public property so it would last a bit longer.

Things were going well until we hit TBWA/Chiat/ Day. Unfortunately, this particular agency also happens to be near St. Patrick's Cathedral. This detail seemed to escape Guido and Kyle, who were happily spraying "Stop hiding behind the tried and true," when the cops got them. They were booked for criminal mischief, which is a felony. Hate crimes are taken more seriously than any other crime, including homicide. The entire precinct was abuzz and working on our case.

I went to the precinct to try to get Guido and Kyle out. I stayed there until 4:30 a.m.; trying to prove that we weren't a guerrilla political group. I had been spraypainting too, and though I hadn't been caught, I revealed our whole plan, incriminating myself.

Guido and Kyle spent the night in jail, and the next day I was arrested for criminal mischief and criminal facilitation, both felonies. Another member of our crew, Lindsey, was asked to turn herself in too. She had been caught by security cameras at J. Walter Thompson, spray painting "Fight mediocrity." It took all day for our paperwork to be processed. Finally, when it was night, we were ready for our transport downtown to Central Booking at 100 Center Street, otherwise known as the Tombs. Downtown, everything changed. No longer was our little joke so funny. I hated the way the guards touched my body when they searched me. I had my clothes on, but I still felt violated. Lindsey and I were put in a cell with about 18 other women. There were skinny wooden benches and an old mat on the floor. A cluster of women were trying to sleep on the mat. I was shocked to see that two of the women were sucking their thumbs like babies.

The sadness of the place was overwhelming. As was the smell. The toilet situation was worse that anything you can imagine, and the guards were the most sadistic women I've ever met. We waited for hours in the hot cell. I tried sleeping on a piece of the bench. I tried to hypnotize myself into believing that I was stuck in some airport somewhere. It didn't work. We were in complete limbo, and soon it became clear to us that we were going to spend the night there.

At that point Lindsey couldn't take it anymore. Exhausted, shocked to her core, she confided that she was on Zoloft for anxiety and was worried about it. She asked if she could see the doctor or get the medicine. The guards asked her what kind of medicine and went off. A couple hours later, her name was called. She got up, left the cell, and I didn't see her for the next 19 hours and was given no information about her. It was starting to feel like Kafka.

You can't talk to a lawyer or have bail set until you're in front of the judge. It used to be that you had to be arraigned within 24 hours of your arrest; now it's 72. I kept expecting to be called, but seemed to be lost in the system. Painful hours went by.

We got the worst baloney sandwiches for "lunch" (at 10:30 a.m.) and "dinner" (4 p.m.). As hard as I tried, I could not swallow mine. Eventually, from the heat, the odors, the lack of food and water and sleep, I developed a migraine. I felt myself slip emotionally. I could not understand why I was the veteran of the cell. Every time the guard would come with a list of names I would get light-headed, then crushed.

I asked the guard for some aspirin. She gave it to me two hours later. Of course, the fountain in the cell is clogged and broken and the only water available is from a cooler outside the bars. You can reach it from the cell, but you need a cup. A big sign is posted outside the cell saying that you have a right to water. It says nothing about cups.

I waited for hours to get water. I begged the guard but she looked the other way, ignoring my request. I pleaded with her when she walked by the next time (most of the time the guards avoid being seen from the cell) and she gave me a look as if I was a prima donna asking for champagne. Still no cup. I started screaming: "Water! Water! Help! Help!" I demanded to see a doctor, but they ignored me.

I have never experienced anything quite this close to deliberate torture. The senseless cruelty was as devastating to my mind as to my body. I can't say how long I went without water because after a while everything became a big blur.

My cellmates couldn't believe that my crime was spray painting. They were really a nice bunch. When I threw up, they came to my aid. Someone even gave me her ration of toilet paper to wipe my mouth and another woman gave me her jacket as a pillow. If anything, my experience made me proud to be a woman. The sympathy, the solidarity, the kindness of these women was remarkable. In there, we were all equals, and we treated each other as such.

But this is what happened to Lindsey: After being called the "crazy bitch" by our charming guards because she mentioned Zoloft, she was hauled off to Bellevue hospital. After waiting several hours, handcuffed to a gurney, surrounded by the truly disturbed, the doctor finally came. "You're here for Zoloft for anxiety!?" he shouted. "Get out of my face! Do you realize you just cost New York a thousand dollars?!"

Needless to say, he refused to give her anything. But since they do not keep psych patients at 100 Center Street, she was brought to the nearest precinct and put into solitary confinement. Her cell was worse than Center Street. Someone had written obscenities on the wall with excrement. To pass the time Lindsey decided to play up her role as "the crazy bitch" and sang all the songs from Annie at the top of her lungs. After each song, there would be tiny applause from neighboring cells. She was given coffee, a Twinkie and, eventually, a rubber fried egg on stale bread. Again, there seemed to be some problem with her fingerprints. Hours went by.

Finally, all our paperwork made it through the system and at 10 p.m. the next day we were arraigned. I could barely walk when I first got out of the cell, I was so weak. It was weird seeing Kyle and Guido, all stinky and famished after all that time. Kyle, who hadn't eaten since Thursday, had started to hallucinate in the cell. Lindsey, who had been alone for so many hours, was dying to talk, but I'd been told that if we talked in the courtroom, they would bring me back into the basement. At that point, I took everything they said very seriously.

When our case finally came up, seconds before we went before the judge we were introduced to our lawyers. The prosecutor, who had been urging the judge to be tough with all the cases before us, could barely hold back a smile when she suggested that our charges should be dismissed. We agreed to one day of community service.

When we got our court papers stamped, the clerk laughed when he read our confessions, but I had lost all sense of humor. Finally after 45 hours of jail for the guys and 36 for us, we were free!

You don't have to pick up condoms, needles or dog shit," we're told. We're doing our community service: a day picking up garbage in Union Square Park. It's a beautiful day, sunny, breezy. It's very pleasant chasing cigarette butts after what we have just been through. My co-workers in the park were charged with assault and shoplifting. We complain about how clean the park is. Eventually I get so bored, I hunt for smokers so I can clean up after them.

I start thinking about my very first job in the business, years ago. I was a PA on a commercials shoot and I was asked to sweep the floor. I was so thrilled to be on set, so excited to be part of making an actual commercial. I felt privileged to be there - it all seemed quite magical to me, this business.

As one of our ill-fated slogans goes: "The person you once were is still inside you."

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