Our daily lives are filled with advertisements. We encounter them on television and the radio, in newspapers and magazines, on the Internet (unless you’re smart enough to install Adblock Plus), on the sides of buses and buildings, and on huge billboards along major roads. With the exception of public service announcements, which make up only a small fraction of the total advertisements that reach us, ads usually exist to encourage us to buy more stuff. Frustrated by commercial advertising, the creators of a website called LoudSauce have launched an online platform for turning advertising into a tool for promoting civic participation.
Similar to Kickstarter, which funds creative projects, LoudSauce applies the concept of crowdsourcing to advertising, allowing people to submit ideas for ad campaigns to be funded. Visitors to the website can then pledge money to support an ad and if the campaign raises enough money by a set deadline, then the donations are used to buy media space to run it. If not, no one gets charged. Using advertising to serve the public interest may have its benefits, but LoudSauce’s model raises the question of whether buying media space is really an appropriate approach to bringing about social change.
LoudSauce intends to empower individuals and organizations working toward social change by amplifying their messages through advertising. The benefits of this type of advertising apply to both the process of creating and running the ads and, more importantly, the content of the ads. Crowdfunding can help people and organizations that would not otherwise have the financial resources to promote their causes by giving them access to advertising. The process of crowdfunding also seems more democratic than corporate funding, for example, because each ad requires the direct approval and support of many people. Of course, the downside to the democratic aspect of crowdfunding is that participants have to vote with their dollars. The ads funded, or elected, reflect the interests of people who can afford to spend more.
Despite some of the drawbacks, LoudSauce ads allow more meaningful messages to displace commercial messages temporarily. A 2010 campaign by Green Patriot Posters brought environmental ad posters encouraging people to think twice about using fossil fuels to eight bus stop shelters in San Francisco. The Green Patriot Posters campaign promoted using a bicycle for transportation and raised awareness about climate change.
Crowdfunding isn’t the first method of using advertising to for non-commercial purposes. Independent groups and artists have used subvertising to convey messages that are often anti-commercial, spoofing real advertisements by companies in the fast food, oil, alcohol, and tobacco industries, among others. While crowdfunded advertising can displace commercial advertising, subvertising often directly attacks commercialism by altering advertisements to change their meanings, usually in ways that make the featured products appear dangerous or at least unappealing. And when efforts like this go viral on the web, they can be significantly more effective than purchased ads.
But a major advantage that crowdfunded advertising has over subvertising is legitimacy. Subvertising, especially in forms like billboard takeover, can involve the illegal act of defacing private property in order to alter ads. Aside from the risk of a subvertisement being removed or covered by the authorities, the illegality associated with this method of spreading a message could undermine the message itself.
Illegality also necessitates anonymity, so if an organization were offering help to victims of domestic violence, for example, displaying a phone number or a website address would not be advisable. Crowdfunding gives organizations with limited financial resources the opportunity to promote their causes in a legal way without the risks associated with subvertising.
Of course, subvertising’s major weakness, the illegality of defacing existing commercial ads, is also its major advantage over crowdfunding. Unlike a subvertisement, a crowdfunded advertisement channels money into the same industry that constantly encourages us to buy lots of unnecessary products, eat unhealthy foods, and generally live as insatiable consumers. Along with supporting an industry that promotes an environmentally unsustainable lifestyle, crowdfunded ads could also detract from charitable giving, diverting resources from organizations that rely on donations to fund their programs—and most likely are, dollar for dollar, a more effective use of these limited resources.
Funding a Loudsauce campaign may represent a good alternative to using disposable income to buy some unnecessary and unsustainable consumer product—or may make a lot of sense in the context of a specific campaign goal, such as drawing attention to a bad politician—but a donation for a non-commercial advertisement should not replace broader support for organizations working toward social justice, environmental sustainability, or countless other worthy causes, and certainly should not be seen as a means to alter the broader marketing-supported media system that props up our consumer culture.
Originally written by Micaela Samodelov in March 2012 for Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures blog.