Passionate attachment: how people are using stickers for activism

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.

UK politician Christopher Monckton is targeted by an activist’s sticker mocking his stance on environmental policy. Original image here.

Mat McDermott Flickr

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

iTunes gift cards on display in a Wal-Mart store. The stickers criticize the service’s manipulation of digital content to prevent those who purchase it from making further copies. Original image here.

thomasexicting Flickr

The affixing of stickers to the outer packaging of consumer products targeted for boycott is particularly popular among environmental activists. Some good examples can be found here, here, here and here. They occasionally pop up in other movements as well. With consumer boycott becoming an increasingly significant tactic among Palestine solidarity activists, the applicability of the tactic is obvious.

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.

Journalistic annotation

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.

Interface redesign

A Bank of American ATM in San Francisco, modified by activists with the Rainforest Action Network. Original image here.

Rainforest Action Network Flickr

Here’s something a bit more novel: Earlier this year, activists with the Rainforest Action Network placed removable stickers over the LCD displays of Bank of America ATMs across the United States to call attention to some of the bank’s many egregious practices. The fact that these were placed on an interactive display that normally requires users to evaluate options and and make choices, as opposed to something further removed and immutable, may have increased the degree to which viewers critically engaged with the content. This same principle can be exploited not only on other public touchscreen devices, but on a wide range of other types of interfaces, as simple as a light switch.

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!

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Comments

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One thing that my activist group is experimenting with are qr codes, you know, the i-phone thing. By just making a qr code that leads to another site but applying it carefully to whatever cause you can adbust stuff in a really interesting way. So you could adbust Geller with some anti-islamophobia qr code that will lead people to that site instead.

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Not quite a sticker, but I frequently make the rounds of the public libraries and bookstores around me, and I insert flyers and handouts in the Israel travel guides (Frommer's, Lonely Planet, and such). I've inserted the Palestinian loss of land postcards, printouts of facts and figures, a collection of vile statements by Israeli politicians...

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What right do you have to:

Change the content of the property offered by the library/bookstore
Impose your views on the library customer or bookstore customer.

This is the same as defacing a poster you don't agree with. So, if others deface the posters that Henry Clifford puts up, you are ok with it

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Naftali, have you ever seen all the junk that is inserted in books and magazines? At least what we're inserting is pertinent information. Besides, a postcard of the Palestinian loss of land, or some choice statements by Israeli politicians, is not exactly my "views" and opinion.

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Pertinent to YOU, not imposing it on someone who is buying a book on Israel. Would you want people who are buying Pro-Palestinian books to find. Pro -Israel material? How about someone buying books on Islam and they find leaflets claiming Muslims are terrorists?

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Between the music and the cinematography, you make putting stickers on stuff look as dramatic as I’ve ever seen it!

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Between the music and the cinematography, you make putting stickers on stuff look as dramatic as I’ve ever seen it!

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

One idea that I’ve seen done well and that I’ve considered doing myself is making block print stickers using blank 4x6 shipping label stickers, which can be ordered in bulk relatively cheaply online. You can make a block for your print using cheap materials like Speedy Cut, which I used to make this block print during Hana al-Shalabi’s hunger strike: http://smpalestine.com/2012/03/08/a-block-print-for-hana-shalabi/ I was able to make hundreds of colorful prints using this one block and maybe $5 worth of water-based ink and stacks of 4x6 note cards. This can just as easily be done with stickers.

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Install teasing stickers leading pedestrians on college campuses to a blocked zone, with an ending sticker saying "This is what a Palestinian in a village called Qalqielya see everyday".
Like a teasing campaign, it's said that more than 25% of people viewing teasing campaigns actually respond to it and follow up to get to the end of the chain.
A friend once printed small stickers and installed them in public transportation means in Jerusalem, as he was trying to raise awareness among the Palestinian youth and that is by writing "we're arabs and we have an identity, we don't listen to Hebrew songs" yet the statement was in Arabic and was very strong.
I suggested on a friend to install transparent sticker that says "Lairs" with a Pinocchio drawing with his long wooden nose, indicating that what is mentioned in this flayer is a big fat lie. This was for a flayer settlers distribute in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank...

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Some people (it may not be legal where you live) write on bank notes with messages such as 'boycott Israel', 'end Israeli apartheid' and other short messages.

Abraham Greenhouse

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Abraham Greenhouse is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter as @grinhoyz.