Banksy Against Advertisers



A paper on the ethics of advertising from one of my students this semester featured this interesting argument attributed to the graffiti artist, Banksy (supposedly from a book called Cut it Out):

People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.

Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

In what ways do you think he is right and in what ways wrong, both in terms of ethics and in terms of what you think laws should say? Your Thoughts?

A lot more pictures of Banksy’s work can be found here.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Physicalist

    Ethics and law is above my pay grade. But I’ve got to say that as an artist, he’s hit it out of the park.

  • rturpin

    While I have some sympathy for the argument that advertisers intrude on us without permission, I worry that the tagger has a similar argument for why he should be able to scribble on the back of my house.

    • Setár, self-appointed Elf-Sheriff of the Pharyngula Star Chamber

      You sell the back of your house as advertising space?

  •!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    It’s a compelling argument until it gets turned back on the vandal. It also troubles me from a free speech point of view. If someone shouts an insult at you, you can shout an insult back. What you can’t do is bonk them on the head and put a gag in their mouth.

  • eric

    I see pros and cons to both sides.

    The pro-Banksy stuff: Like Tabby, I think there are free speech issues here. But he makes a good point limited public space. If we all have to look at a wall, then its legitimate to ask if its in the public’s best interest to have someone (anyone) monopolize that wall space. I may have no problem with the wall-owner selling that space…but selling all of it, to one corporation, for eternity may not be a good idea.

    I could see a reasonable argument for having rules analogous to time/place/manner restrictions on speech. Yes, you can buy that advertising space. But like a guy at a podium, you only get one week. Or maybe you only get 80% of it, and public passers-by get the other 20% to comment on your ad.

    The con-Banksy stuff: being a homeowner, the idea of homeowners associations telling me what color my door has to be or what I can and can’t grow in my garden really pisses me off. Its my flipping door. The fact that you walk by it does not trump the fact that its my flipping door. And frankly, I am much happier living in a world where I can paint my door whatever color I want, even if it means my neighbor paints theirs purple. The freedom is, to me, worth the cost. Banksy is making a pro-homeowner’s association argument: that building owners and landowners don’t just have to abide by community standards on “big” land use decisions (which I and pretty much anyone not a libertarian would agree on), but they must also abide by community opinion on minor, trivial land use decisions like what gets painted on the wall. And I think that’s wrong. Maybe wrong is not the right descriptor – I think that approach ultimately leads to a much less pleasant and free world than the alternative, even if the ‘cost’ of the more free alternative is letting owners put whatever advertising they want in my face. Its their purple door. And I’m okay with that.

  • sidhe3141

    Oh no you don’t. I’m not doing your grading for you.

    Seriously, though, I do find a minor problem. The owner of the space where the advertising happens has a right to speak freely, which includes speech for pay, and does not include a right of others to force them to speak.

    On the other hand, there is a point in that the right to speak freely includes a right to walk away from the speaker without problems, and is generally held to not include a right to harass others. This becomes problematic when an advertiser has a captive audience.

    On the third hand, Bansky seems to be arguing that the solution to the problem of advertisers paying to advertise to a captive audience is to… present one’s message to a captive audience without paying, as though it were the fact that the speech is paid for that were the problem rather than the fact that the message is presented to people who have not consented to hear the message and have no reasonable way to avoid it.

    • Setár, self-appointed Elf-Sheriff of the Pharyngula Star Chamber

      …as though it were the fact that the speech is paid for that were the problem rather than the fact that the message is presented to people who have not consented to hear the message and have no reasonable way to avoid it.

      How about Option 4: the advertisers are paying for the ability to present the message without consent or a way to reasonably avoid it, and their monopolization of ‘public’ spaces is based on nothing more than said ability to pay.

  • cjwinter

    The difference between advertising and ‘good’ street art like Banksy’s comes down to how we interact with it – how it is designed to engage us.
    Advertising aims to stop us thinking.
    Street art aims to make us think.
    Two ends of a continuum.
    I think the virtue lies in making us think.