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Manchester lifestyle reviews

Design The Future Exhibition

Design the Future: advertising's mission?

Reviewed by Simon Belt June 2011


Through a clever advertising move, Manchester's anonymous yet celebrity poster and flyer campaigner, employed the effective talents of Manchester's blogger Fat Roland to help him get a big audience for his Poster Exhibition - 2 June for 3 days only. Micah Purnell used this exhibition to come clean about who was behind a series of intriguing posters and flyers around the city, focussed on the now trendy Northern Quarter, well sort of come clean anyway.


Fat Roland invited his wide network of friends and fellow bloggers with some clever copy like 'For three years, an anonymous poster designer plastered Manchester with 67,000 fly posters and flyers, including the well known Peter Saville spoofs that turned the head of the media', informing his audience that there was a phenomena they were being invited to take part in. It's interesting that one of Manchester's most prolific and celebrated bloggers was selected to promote a primarily image based craft and exhibition - a theme I find most revealing.


Having walked around Manchester's Northern Quarter looking for suitable venues to host some of Manchester Salon's public discussions, I'd noticed some of the posters on show at the exhibition and wondered what was behind the campaign, but by the time I checked out the next venue the moment had passed. The exhibition displayed the posters from the recent campaign which formally subverts the idea of advertising, in truth more an edgy style than subversive in content, with options to buy limited edition copies at reduced rates, if purchased on the night of the private and pre-public viewing. However, when looking at the posters again in preparation for this exhibition, and particularly Micah's pamphlet 'Hot Air Balloons', I started to make the connections and understand the motivation and rationale behind the campaign.


Photo by Micah Purnell of him gesturing to his audienceSo Micah is reportedly uncomfortable with publicity and much of his work formally gives the finger to the idea of advertising, yet his campaigns have been supported by big names in Manchester like the Cornerhouse and helped him carry on this advertising campaign so what's behind it all? As you can read from Hot Air Balloons, just before he remembers from design school to 'know your market', Micah along with many in the elite world of The Creatives, fingers advertising as having helped make us passive victims of the 'strength, audacity and angle of the consumer machine that surrounds us', because it 'has more of a hold on society than I think society would like to give it credit for'. Thank God that Micah is here to raise our awareness of this? His elusive presence at the exhibition reflects the anonymity of his campaign that structurally avoids dialogue.


Well I was rather hoping for some revelations that could help me withstand the bombardment from the 3000 ads we are supposedly exposed to each day. In the section on How to Analyse an Advert, I began to wonder exactly how influenced by advertising images I really was and think that I'm perhaps less influenced by images and more by words and discussion. Using the example Micah draws on of Vodafone's advertising campaign in the summer of 2009, which promoted their abolishing mobile fone roaming charges; he tries to explain the importance of images alongside words in triggering a conversation in the viewer's mind. This section was really quite interesting in its appreciation of context and how immediate conversations relate to broader social and historical ideas


Anti-consumer(ist) moralisingThe use of Vodaphone rather than the correct Vodafone in the article though, highlights the dominance of the word over the image which many a graphic artist may appreciate but rarely act on. Whilst we may read the word Vodafone and appreciate the German origins of the name, and be very brand conscious, when it comes to writing it from our thoughts, we instinctively write Vodaphone. Vodafone may like the cognitive dissonance of their name causes to emphasise the brand, but the point is the importance of words and their relationship to thought processes though conversations. There is a strong emphasis on liberating us from the hold capitalism supposedly has on us through advertising consumerist society, but it's more assumed this is good for us rather than trying to convince of it.


At this stage of reading the pamphlet, and looking at his advertising campaign to date as a teaser to a full on conversation, you might expect a more strident engagement against the industry or with his audience, and to some extent it comes with the following quote:

"In the UK I hear of spiralling debt problems, increasing divorces and the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe - and the second highest in the world after the US. Maybe this is not the sole responsibility of luring advertising, its promotion of individualism, glamour and instant gratification but surely needs to take some of the blame. With the right words, images and regularity I believe major headway can be made to help all these issues. My desire is to hire ten percent of all billboards annually and break into this culture with the language and medium already understood by its audience, to reinvigorate society."


The thing that's problematic for me is that having started out with a rather contemptuous view of ordinary people as passive victims of clever advertisers who are themselves somehow immune from their colleagues, yet talking about the importance of words, conversations and social context, Micah, like so many designers who know best for us, defensively avoids trying to change what they think the industry is or having an active conversation with the audience he wishes to save from himself and his colleagues. Simply deciding on our behalf that we shouldn't be subjected to adverts for consumer products and services which may or may not be of use to us, and replacing them with his message of awareness raising from the divine voice to those yet to be enlightened is not only defensive and contemptuous, but simply doesn't help develop an active conversation.


If you don't design the future someone else willKnowing his market, the finger to the audience image above may be intended as a finger to the industry in Micah's own head in some clever way, but when the finger gesture is presented to ordinary people walking the streets of the Northern Quarter, replacing messages from Vodafone with messages from God reveals his contempt for ordinary mortals rather than any subversive approach to the advertising industry. Despite the message, the posters are very stylish and the exhibition in Obscure, Stevenson Square was packed on the first evening at least.


Incidentally, for those in the advertising industry who've bought into the Mac dream reading this review, some websites produced using Apple's web authoring software on the iMac have been a series of images stuck together making it impossible for those website visitors who have some visual impairments to understand what the websites are about. To search engines also, sites developed like that say 'All fur coat and no knickers', rather like those trying to use short sentence advertising to have an enriching public conversation.


There was one of Micah's posters which I did like and fitted the title of the exhibition Design The Future, and that was the one with a graphic of multiple connections and the text 'If you don't design the future, someone else will'.


A telling comment made during the evening was 'You either get it or you don't' which I thought rather summed up Micah's approach very well - a no dialogue, detached view of the world of ideas where some people know what's right and the rest of us just don't. Micah's message is that there are those who rise above the contempt embodied in his industry, and there are those that just can't - he targets his message at those that just can't. By replacing adverts for consumer goods and services he's decided we don't need, with nudges to change our behaviour, he aligns himself with our politically correct masters nudging us to better behaviour with campaigns like minimum pricing for alcohol because they know what's best for us but can't convince us through a conversation with us.



Editor's Note: Whilst we're on the subject of the relationship between art and politics, the Manchester Salon is organised a discussion entitled 'Valuing the Arts' looking at 'how the arts sector can ensure quality in the midst of dramatic budget cuts' in June.

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