Unvertising and the production of ad-free blissfulness

by thomasdekeyser

Image by Thomas von Wittich

Image by Thomas von Wittich


Did you ever walk onto a tube platform that used to have advertising but suddenly became ad-free? Or perhaps a new tube station was opened without installed media spaces? Or perhaps you visited a Communist city that prefers the sight of concrete over that of advertising messages? If you have, do you remember the feeling that emerged? I do. It happened to me about a year ago. I stepped into an elevator at Goodge Street station when a rather intense, uncomfortable feeling overtook my state of mind. I was aware it emerged through a disjunction of aesthetic expectancies, however it took a while before realising the cause: it was the first time, after taking this elevator twice a day, 5 days a week for more than a 18 months, the internal walls of the elevator were not covered in adverts. This was the first time the well-known fact of advertising’s omnipresence shifted from my rational acknowledgement towards a more emotional, sensual and at first pre-conscious understanding.

On the basis of a similar realisation and as part of his 2014 electoral campaign to become the mayor of French city Grenoble, Eric Poille ended his city’s contract with global media space provider JC Decaux. Over the last months, Grenoble has started to clear its streets, squares and buildings from commercial messaging, thus becoming the first city in Europe to become ad-free. By doing so, it follows Brazilian metropolis Sao Paulo and its Clean City Law. While the subtle re-emerging of brands into Sao Paulo (particularly through brand collaborations with street artists) is not unproblematic, the potential of its ad-free nature has proven to facilitate a range of unexpected delights. It is worth noting however that the grounds of these decisions have roots in aesthetics (as the term Clean City Law implies), rather than in politics. This is to liberate the city landscape from its visual pollution, rather than its political, everyday resonances through its advertising messages. This raises interesting questions into our understandings of the affective capacities of advertising; and whether its resonances are primarily aesthetic or, as many scholars would argue, are disruptive of more fundamental levels of human experience, and by extension, more-than-human experiences through the consumerism promoted in commercial advertising. These are some of the points I am currently thinking through in my MA dissertation which includes field work in Grenoble.

Beyond the kinds of legal transformations found in Sao Paulo and Grenoble, and perhaps more politically-inspired, the presence of ad-free spaces is also increasingly promoted through unofficial interventions. This is subversion of the media space itself, not its content. This is what could be termed ‘unvertising’, or the physical undoing of advertising. Here the alteration of the expected (the advert) into the unexpected (a blank space) becomes a vehicle for unleashing affect. The intensities such change is afforded might extend beyond the capacities of material subversion, i.e. ‘conventional subvertising’. The latter requires an individual to already pay attention to adverts in the first place, while, we all know, the encounter with advertising is one most commonly characterised by a disposition of inattention (Cronin, 2006). By contrast, the visual disruption that derives from fully removing the advertising in, for instance, an entire carriage might be more forceful by nature. If indeed, as Carlisle (2014: 10) has pointed out, ‘habits show themselves when they are disrupted’, then unvertising might become a forceful tool for the shifting and hijacking of habitual engagements with and understandings of our advertising-loaded urban environments. This potential is formulated most intensely in closed, more ‘passive’ environments such as tube trains, where the stimuli of the non-advert has an easier time attempting to stand out amongst a range of multi-sensual triggers (speech, machinic sounds of movements, scents of food and flowers).

Two recent projects were built on this logic that are worth highlighting here. Vermibus is known for his brushing away of the flesh and faces of advertising models through the use of solvent, thereby producing rather alienating bodily appearances (see here). Last year he launched a project to officially turn 27th of November (i.e. the day before ‘Buy Nothing Day‘) into No-Ad day through an invitation to start removing advertising from its dedicated spaces across the global. In the words of Vermibus, ‘NO AD Day is about controlling the over-saturation of our minds and environment by commercial media, so that we might address our consumptive needs in a more meaningful and productive way’.



Similarly, and moving back from Berlin to London, Strike Magazine recently launched its #Adfreejubilee campaign, requesting underground travellers to engage in the simple act of removing/reversing tube adverts. While both of these projects are experimental, rather than strategic, they do seem to signal an accelerated fascination with the potency of an advertising-less globe.


Image by Strike Magazine

Image by Strike Magazine



Carlisle, C. (2014) On Habit. New York: Routledge.

Cronin, A. M. (2006) Advertising and the metabolism of the city: Urban space, commodity rhythms. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24(4), pp. 615–632.