Saturday, 12:00am
2 November 2002

The frontiers of ad space

Is playing advertisers at their own game a good way to keep them in check? Critique by Rick Poynor

Web-only Critique written exclusively for

Reading a recent issue of The Guardian, I came across something I couldn’t recall having seen before in that paper. In the international news section, there was a full-page ad for Blue Harbour, a range of men’s clothing available at Marks & Spencer. Nothing very unusual about that, except that the ad had slipped its leash. Instead of occupying a single page, where it would have been possible to ignore it, it was placed across the centre of the spread. The news was pushed out to a narrow half-page strip on each side.

We have grown used to seeing publications, even liberal-minded national newspapers, preach one thing in their editorial-page opinion pieces and practise another in their marketing departments. But this was a particularly blatant space-grab and the media-buyers at M&S must have been rubbing their hands with glee. The most important and commanding thing on this spread (and the preceding spread was almost as bad) wasn’t North Korea’s moves to negotiate with the US over its nuclear weapons, or the murder of a Japanese politician, or the revelation that Phuket is a potential terrorist target – it was a blue woolly jumper. It’s understandable, although still objectionable, that advertisers should behave like this. They have one-track minds, a peculiar view of human priorities and that’s their job. One might hope, though, that a broadsheet paper with a more thoughtful agenda would have the resolve to hold them in check.

The latest issue of Shift!, the occasional Berlin visual culture magazine (, takes the relentless encroachment of advertising into editorial territory as its theme. Shift! has never previously featured any advertising, but ‘19.99 – A Commercial Shift!’ contains almost nothing but ads, some 200 of them: full page, half page, quarter page and smaller. Some are real, the most conspicuous being an Adobe ad for InDesign 2.0, and Adbusters, Dot Dot Dot and Eye magazines are also represented. Other ads promote designers, artists and businesses. Many are entirely fictitious and if you don’t speak German, it won’t always be easy to tell which these are, though the presence of a tiny vertical credit is a bit of a giveaway (an ‘ad’ for the designers that should perhaps have been resisted, in the spirit of the project).

The invented ads are not, in any case, really ads. The more focused contributions tend to be editorial messages, often about advertising, delivered in the form of an ad. With a refreshing lack of subtlety, one reads ‘Don’t Buy What They’re Selling!’ and asks why millions of dollars are being wasted on advertising when the money could be put to more productive uses. Another offers ‘Analog Memory Control’, allowing buyers to create memories of experiences they have never had and be whatever they would like to be. The most disquieting ad, showing a man’s face with his eyes blacked out, simply reads ‘Will kill for free’, with a phone number. No design credit given on this one.

Shift!’s art director, Anja Lutz, hopes the issue will encourage readers to question the power and influence of advertising. It’s a sentiment with which one can hardly disagree and any effort to foster a more critical view of advertising deserves plenty of support. Is it the magazine’s assumption, though, that its regular readers are unaware of this power? If they are aware, then the exercise seems pointless. Why not continue to offer, as Shift! has until now, an advertising-free alternative to advertising-dominated youth culture? (Style magazines, complacently slick with advertising, are the worst offenders of all.) If Shift!’s readers really do need to be snapped out of an advertising-induced trance, then one has to ask whether ‘19.99’ – the issue’s price in Euros – is sufficiently incisive in its arguments and editorial strategy to achieve this aim. By presenting itself as a cool, nicely produced, graphically intriguing object composed of wall-to-wall ads, it runs the risk of colluding with and confirming advertising’s glamour and its irresistible powers of seduction.

One of the ads – by Evangelos Papazoglou, who collaborated on the issue – shows a working man in a cloth cap holding up a red sign for ‘Proletario Pizza’. It made me laugh out loud. I knew it was fake, but I found myself wanting to go there anyway.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.