An anti-Muslim advertisement in a New York City subway, modified by activists(photographer unknown)
When I sat down to dinner at a quaint Italian bistro near Brooklyn’s Prospect Park a few weeks ago, one of my first actions was to slide my appetizer dish over to the left to make more room for the hot bread that had just been brought out. Except it didn’t slide. It didn’t even move a fraction of an inch. I tried nudging a few other objects on the table. Everything was stuck. It was so freaking humid out, the dishes, glasses, condiment tray, everything was adhering to the varnished table top, requiring actual effort to remove.
A little bit of something sticky between two surfaces can have a disproportionate impact.
This got me thinking about one of those ubiquitous tools of the activist trade—the sticker—and the ways in which I’ve seen or imagined it being deployed in atypical ways to achieve a variety of effects.
Since I began writing this, the use of stickers and sticker-like materials for activism got a sudden boost in visibility when a series of anti-Muslim advertisements by Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative appeared in New York City subways and were promptly modified by activists, receiving significant media attention.
NOTE: The following discussion does not constitute endorsement of any of activity described therein. Though innocuous, application of stickers to private property could potentially have legal repercussions, and statutes that are not normally enforced may be selectively applied as a means of stifling unpopular speech.
Getting into the mindset: reverse-print transparent stickers
When I was an undergrad at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the town was experiencing an accelerated process of gentrification. Low income housing was being torn down to make way for sprawling yuppie condos. With the yuppies came establishments explictly designed to cater to them, among them an array of bland, pretentious, and absurdly overpriced restaurants. A disproportionate number of these establishments were designed with their dining areas located as near to the street as possible without spilling onto the sidewalk, separated from the real world by wall-to-wall plate glass windows. Well-to-do patrons attempting to avert their eyes from passing homeless people to focus on their sixty dollar entrees were a common sight.
I wanted to find some way to send the message that these people were not welcome. Sure, a group of activists could have staged some sort of noisy disruption inside, but I preferred something subtle and pyschologically unsettling that would force the gentrifiers to grapple with the message iself, rather than become distracted by the delivery mechanism.
I decided to purchase a box of uncut 8.5x11” (US Letter) transparent stickers that could be loaded into a printer. While the stickers could theoretically be applied to the inside of the windows, they’d certainly be removed much more quickly. Choosing transparent stickers offered the ability to print text in reverse, so that the sticker could be affixed to outside of the window while being fully legible from the inside.
I frankly don’t recall what the stickers ended up saying. The first one was undoubtedly an expression of unbridled antipathy, conveyed in terse yet colorful language. Not subtle. But others were pithy yet disturbing statements aimed at forcing patrons to reflect on their role in perpetuating the poverty and despair that existed beyond the plate glass windows. Whatever they said, I’m quite certain they helped ruin a significant number of evenings.
The net impact of these stickers was rather limited, but this provides a solid example of one possible direction for thinking about how this simple and inexpensive little tool, the sticker, can be used to alter the way in which a viewer relates to an object, or to their environment, in myriad ways.
Let’s look at some other ways people have used stickers…
Pre-sale intervention against boycottable consumer goods
DIY beverage labels
Offering cold water to a dehydrated pedestrian tends to make them somewhat more inclined to listen to what you have to say. So why not take advantage of the opportunity to explain how Israeli settlers happily float in swimming pools while thousands of Palestinians don’t even have access to running water? Stickers applied to a disposable/recyclable cup or bottle can convey essential facts without requiring the recipient to stay for a conversation. While I was at Rutgers, the university’s exclusive marketing contract with Coca-Cola offered campus groups the oportunity to procure hundreds of free bottles of Coke products. It wouldn’t have been hard to remove the factory labels from Dasani bottles and replace them with our own, and we’d be doing our own small part to redirect funds from a company that maintains bottling plants atop depopulated Palestinian villages toward educating people about Palestinian human rights.
British comedian Tom Scott created a set of warning stickers to be applied to newspapers, magazines, and other printed media in which the integrity of the content was suspect. Highlights include “WARNING: This article is basically just a press release, copied and pasted”, “WARNING: This article contains unsourced, unverified information from Wikipedia”, and “WARNING: Journalist hiding their own opinions by using phrases like ‘some people claim’.” The stickers sparked a strong reaction, and have now been translated into over a dozen languages. Scott’s stickers are available to download in both US and UK sizes.
This tactic of annotating opposition print material would probably be most effective if the material exists in a very small print run, or only a small subset of the material (like every copy being distributed in a particular location) needs to be annotated to achieve the desired effect. It’s usually faster and less labor-intensive to simply add a loose custom insert to such material (assuming we’re talking about the interior of a multi-page periodical), but stickers do offer the advantage of being fixed in place, and the capacity for targeting to specific areas of a printed page.
Sticking outside the box
People with far greater budgets and far less noble goals have also explored this territory, and so searching the web for things like “creative uses of stickers in advertising” will turn up interesting results. There’s actually quite a bit more material here than can be found by restricting searches to a specifically activist context.
Got some cool sticker use ideas of your own? Let’s hear them!