“Here is a guide to activism that focuses on the serious moral case for fundamental change and on making it fun as hell.”David Swanson, WarIsACrime.org & OpEd News
In June 2013, Barcelona’s city council shocked residents by renting out the iconic Columbus Monument to two multinational companies to use as a billboard — just another case of public goods being sold off or rented while private companies make massive profits. Immediately thereafter, those two companies put an enormous Futbol Club Barcelona team jersey on the sculpture and began selling athletic shoes and low-cost trips to tourist destinations in front of the monument.
The advertisement quickly caught the attention of the major TV networks and the most popular magazines, putting Spain back in the international spotlight by highlighting the thing that it is best known for: its sporting victories. Spaniards are rightly proud of being world champions in football (“soccer,” to North Americans), basketball, MotoGP, and other sports. But the Spanish media is less likely to trumpet the fact that Spain is also a world champion of unemployment: 6 million jobless and rising (almost half of all working-age young people) as of early 2013. For Enmedio, a radical design collective, this issue was worthy of some subversive attention.
The first thing Enmedio did was call a press conference at the base of the Columbus Monument for noon — peak time for tourists. The press had already spilled rivers of ink on the city council’s privatization of a piece of public art. Any mention of the issue meant higher sales for a newspaper, so dozens of journalists obediently turned up, eager to get a photo of whatever was going to happen. As they milled about, a gigantic yellow balloon suddenly appeared with the words “Spain: Champions of Unemployment” written across it in Spanish and English.
All of the assembled journalists rushed forward to photograph the ball as it rose to a spot at the tip of Columbus’ finger. If the original publicity drive had created a major media wave, this new intervention was not far behind. The photo was widely published in the media the next day, drawing widespread attention to Spain’s alarming social situation — without a dime having been spent on publicity.
The official ad campaign had been a success: it created widespread media attention, which the Enmedio stunt was then able to hijack. In order to do so, Enmedio had to do two things well: it had to create a simple image that could be reproduced easily, and it had to execute the action quickly, before the police arrived. Both of these objectives were met, and the event was a success.
Whenever a company uses an iconic landmark like Barcelona’s Columbus Monument for commercial purposes, it is doing two things at once: On one hand, it is adding new meaning to the monument’s original significance; at the same time, it is also shining a media spotlight on it. Any intervention that follows will produce the same effect twice over. No symbol is ever closed completely; every image is open to new meanings whenever somebody manages to interfere with it (see TACTIC: Détournement/culture jamming). With the balloon, Enmedio harnessed the media spectacle to open up the meaning of the Columbus Monument.
The Columbus ad campaign had really stirred up public opinion, with news articles for and against, and TV shows discussing the limits of privatization. In that atmosphere, Enmedio created an image that operated as a perfect hook for a news media eager to continue publishing stories on this subject, having found it so useful previously. The group used the communicative logic of the media to disrupt the ad campaign’s use of the monument, deploying a simple image that explained the meaning of the protest in a single stroke (see THEORY: Action logic).
Spain had just won the World Cup. The statue of Columbus in Barcelona is one of the best known monuments in Europe. Barça is considered one of the best football clubs in the world. Advertising your company at the intersection of all of this was undoubtedly a major marketing success. And using all of that to promote the fight against unemployment was even more so.
From the outset, this intervention was conceived more as an advertisement or a publicity spot than as a protest action. In fact, few people were actually able to see it before it was removed. What an enormous number of people did see, however, was the photograph of the action that the media published the next day. That is where organizers were looking to make an impact: on the terrain of media communication. And in that, it certainly succeeded.