What is Subvertising?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 May 2020
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Subvertising is a political or social commentary that involves spoofing a well-known advertisement or brand to convey an entirely new message. People perform subvertising for a variety of reasons, ranging from a desire to challenge the mainstream to an interest in questioning the business practices of a specific company. Examples can be seen in numerous locations around the world; subvertisers are extremely creative about their ad placement, as they lack the clout of official advertising agencies.

Subvertisements use the color schemes, fonts, and aesthetics of existing ads to create a mimic ad that will look official and plausible from a distance. The subvertisement usually spoofs the company name and the ad copy to create a parody that challenges people who encounter the ad. Subvertising can contain information designed to educate people about the business and environmental practices of specific companies, an embedded anti-consumerism message, or a political commentary, among other things.

Commonly, subvertising is executed by the political left, but the right also engages in this activity. Subvertisements are showcased in magazines and websites that focus on counterculture, culture jamming, and culture hacking. Some subvertising takes the form of billboard modification, ensuring that numerous people see the material before the billboard company covers it over. On occasion, organizations experience success with placing subvertisements in mainstream publications and on the radio or television. Subvertising can also be used as part of a larger campaign to draw attention to a social or political issue, as seen when animal welfare groups parody ads produced by fast food companies.

Subvertisements are clearly designed as parodies, and thus are permitted to use images, fonts, and branding that may be protected by copyright under normal circumstances. Some companies targeted by subvertisers may resist subvertising campaigns designed to force consumers to think about their products in new ways, but legal challenges to subvertisements are relatively rare. Some companies even get into the spirit of subvertising themselves and create parodies that target their competitors with the goal of promoting their own products.

This form of commentary relies on many of the same things that make advertising itself so successful. People who design subvertisements know that using known branding and aesthetic styles will catch the eyes of people who view the material, and they are also aware of the subconscious power that advertising can have. While a person exposed to a subvertisement might not become an immediate convert to the message, the core ideas may stick with the person, especially with repeat exposures. This may lead someone to do some research to explore a topic in more detail.

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