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Column: Hey, ads! Stop looking at me while I'm on the toilet!

When the ads you never asked to see are so invasive that they even follow you into the toilet, you have every right to take a stand against it, writes Clare Hartwieg.

Clare Hartwieg

WHEN I WAS in college I would often use a particular toilet cubicle just to see how an interesting conversation was progressing. Using a black marker, a girl had described a problem she was having in her relationship. Underneath it, several other students wrote warm and sympathetic advice. One day, I was disappointed to see that the discussion had been painted over. I wondered if the original writer, who felt she could speak to nobody but the wall of a toilet cubicle, ever got to see the responses to her dilemma. Inside the door there was an advertisement for management careers at the German supermarket chain Lidl.

Sometimes public toilets feel like the only place where we could be alone in the world. Some of my most emotionally charged moments have been within those cramped walls. They are a place to escape from bad situations and take deep breaths. I have consoled friends in public toilets and I have been consoled in them. I have answered the call of nature while reading the declarations of love, drawings, trivial rumours, jokes, musings, deep confessions and inspiring words left behind by those women who have gone before me.

Privacy invaded by that inevitability of our time: advertising

Sometimes toilets can even host information that women are prevented from sharing with one another in course of normal social relations. When it was illegal to give information on abortion (until 1995 in Ireland), women would scrawl the relevant phone numbers in toilet cubicles.

Public toilets can be like a confessional where the listeners are other people instead of priests. They are a place where we can express ourselves and relate to each other without the inhibitions and social norms that normally keep is separated. The problem is that even this apparently sacrosanct discursive space has been invaded by that inevitability of our time: advertising.

One Irish company called Outhouse advertising boasts its ability to reach consumers ‘in the most private, personal and one-to-one place on earth’. Even more disturbing, it claims that since the 18-35 year old demographic is bombarded with advertising everywhere they go, ‘advertisers need to catch them on another level, catch them where the chances of escape are fewer’ (my italics).

Talk back to advertisements

In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that it is misguided to place advertisements in places where ‘students have been known to pull out their pens or eyeliners and scrawl desperate declarations of love, circulate unsubstantiated rumours, carry on the abortion debate and share deep philosophical insights.’ She explains that because of their private nature, toilets have become a safe space in which to talk back to advertisements.

Klein describes how some students at the University of Toronto responded to the permeation of advertising into every nook and cranny of their mental and physical environment: A handful of students got jobs with the washroom billboard company and replaced the ads with prints by Maurits Corneils Escher. He was chosen because his geometric work photocopied well.

MC Escher's Relativity, 1953. Source: scottmcd

Culture jamming

The students' actions can be understood in terms of a technique called 'culture jamming', which involves provoking social change by creatively interfering with ('jamming') the dominant culture.

Culture jammers feel compelled to react to unfair conditions in society, of which invasive advertising is just one symptom. In his 1993 pamphlet Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing,and Sniping in the Empire of Signs, Mark Dery held that we are obliged to 'peer at the world through peepholes owned by multinational conglomerates for whom the profit margin is the bottom line.'

Advertising seeks to promote a world view that suits the powerful, making the vastly unequal system of neoliberalism seem like 'common sense' to the rest of us. Because advertising is a potent tool that helps big businesses to peruse unfair agendas, learning how to use advertising in subversive, resistive ways is important in order to challenge this. Dery uses the term 'guerilla semiotics' to describe analytical techniques that can help us to decipher the signs and symbols that are the 'secret language' of advertising.

Why are they worthy of being heard?

I do not believe that just because someone can afford to buy up public space to proliferate their agenda, they are more legitimate and more worthy of being heard than 'ordinary' citizens. And yet, in that toilet in UCD, a tender interaction between students was deemed deemed less worthy of existence than an ad for Lidl.

When the ads you never asked to see are so invasive that they even follow you into the toilet, you have every right to interfere with them. You can alter them to reveal the truth that advertising conceals, or you can can cover them with something genuine and beautiful. Above all, you can assert that you are a human being, not a target market.

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(If you are interested in learning more about culture jamming and the many forms it can take, have a look at this post.)

Clare Hartwieg is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the University College Dublin Equality Studies. MSc. She blogs about a variety of issues at and also writes about her experiences teaching in South Korea at The Busan Ultimatum. You can follow her on Twitter @ClareHartwieg.

Clare wrote her masters thesis about culture jamming; you can download 'Culture Jamming: A Tool for Egalitarian Change?' here.

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Clare Hartwieg

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