In the 80s, Outlaw Artists Were Hacking Billboards Before Photoshop

Whether you call them pranksters, activists, or vigilantes, Truth in Advertising took a creative stand against corporate influence—and won.
November 23, 2016, 9:58am
Images and captions courtesy Bob Stayton

This article originally appeared on The Creators' Project.

The year was 1980 and no billboard was safe. A loose group of artists, designers, and troublemakers called Truth in Advertising were making not-so-subtle changes to advertisements all over Santa Cruz. The goal was to subvert lowbrow doublespeak with clever turns of phrase that made fun of the product being sold or revealed the truth behind the slogan. One example is is cigarette campaign with the vaguely positive language, "Kent III, Experience It!" tweaked to say "Cancer, Experience It!"


Bob Stayton, a.k.a., "William Board," invented a method for "updating" these monumental ads that would spread to friends and friends of friends, all operating under the Truth in Advertising moniker. "No one knows how many people participated over the years," Stayton writes on his website. "There was no roster, and no email list (there was no email back then). Since the activity was illegal, it was best not to know names." He tells The Creators Project that his process involved carefully studying the typography of the ad words, projecting Polaroid photos onto graph paper to nail the proportions, and then pasting wallpaper painted with acrylic over the billboard.

These overlay letters were hand drawn, with the capital C in "Cancer" being 2½ feet tall.

According to Northern California news site Metroactive, the billboards became very popular, earning prime real estate in local papers and a cover story in the Los Angeles Times. Despite the publicity, the members of Truth in Advertising were never caught. "We had one close encounter," Stayton explains. "The lookouts warned the installers and they hid until the police car left. We were in and out within minutes, so the risk was low."

Stayton was personally involved in at least 12 rewrites, which he planned or photographed. "I'm retired, but I published the directions in case someone else wants to give it a try," he says. While he's focusing on his day job as a computer consultant and the author of a book about solar energy, he's left an open invitation to artists looking to take up his mantle. "If someone uses our method then they can use the Truth in Advertising name. No trademark there!" he says. While we don't condone the destruction of private property, you can read the official guide to Truth in Advertising here, and do with it what you will.


The group faded away after achieving the closest thing to a victory the art vigilantes could hope for when Santa Cruz banned billboards from its skyline. In 2007 the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History displayed photos of the billboards, but the body of work has been under the radar until now. Today, Truth in Advertising's mission has gotten modern updates by projects like NOAD and Brandalism, who work to creatively co-opt the advertising space.

Put up July 28, 1982, at the corner of Cedar and Center Streets in Santa Cruz. Appeared on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel on August 4. Despite the publicity, it was not covered over until August 31, after being up for 34 days.

"Sex sells", goes the advertising maxim. And today, ads continue to grow more sexually suggestive. The tiger gets it.

Put up June 30, 1982, at the corner of Cedar and Center Streets in Santa Cruz. Appeared on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel on July 7, and was covered over on July 9, after being up for 9 days.

In December 2002, President George W. Bush said the U.S. would use "overwhelming force", including nuclear weapons, if chemical or biological weapons were used against America.

Put up November 24, 1983 at the corner of Washington Street and Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. Vandalized on November 27 with a "Nuke the mall" addition. Restored by TIA's "B-Team" on December 5. Covered over December 20, after being up for 26 days.

This was TIA's largest makeover. It required eleven vertical strips, each ten feet long, to cover over half the billboard. During the installation, the billboard platform broke, leaving a TIA member hanging onto the side of the billboard as the ladder tilted.

Put up January 6, 1983 on Ocean Street in Santa Cruz. Appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on January 21. Covered over on January 24, after being up for 15 days.

Changing "Rums" to "Ruins" took just a small strip of black and a white dot. The "in" required hard to handle cut-out letters.

Put up July 12, 1982, at the corner of Cedar and Center Streets in Santa Cruz. Covered over July 24, after being up for 12 days.

This overlay was done in multiple sections, and covered one-third of the entire billboard's area. Installation took less than 10 minutes.

Put up February 15, 1981, at the corner of Cedar and Center Streets in Santa Cruz. Hit the newspapers on March 3rd and 4th, including the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Covered over March 5th, after being up for 18 days.

With U.S. support, the El Salvador army was suppressing democracy and terrorizing its citizens. By simply removing his cigarette, the model was transformed into a cheering partisan of democracy.

Put up March 27, 1985, near the south end of Center Street. Covered over April 12, after being up for 16 days.

Santa Cruz hosted the Miss California pageant for sixty years. Protesting sexist stereotypes, the Preying Mantis Brigade threw blood donated by raped women onto the steps of the pageant auditorium in 1985. The following year the pageant moved to San Diego.

Put up September 24, 1984 at the corner of Washington Street and Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. Covered over October 1, after being up for 7 days. Ronald Reagan had proposed his "Star Wars" missile system in 1983. He was reelected President on November 6.

Ronald Reagan appeared in eight episodes of the TV series Death Valley Days between 1964 and 1966. He was elected governor of California in 1966. Original artwork by a TIA member.

Put up November 19, 1981, at the corner of Cedar and Center Streets in Santa Cruz. Covered over January 8, 1982, after being up for 50 days.

The caricatures of President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Al Haig were borrowed from a Pat Oliphant political cartoon.

Put up November 2, 1981, on lower Front Street in Santa Cruz. Covered over November 20, after being up for 18 days.

The U.S. government continued to escalate its support for the brutal El Salvador military, and continued to hide the truth from the American people, following the same pattern as Vietnam in the 1960s.

Put up July 14, 1980 on Ocean Street in Santa Cruz, near the County Building. The first attempt used double-sided scotch tape, but the glue melted when the sun hit it and the overlay sign fell down. The second attempt a day later used wallpaper paste, which stayed up for two weeks until it was covered over.

The Coors family's suppression of unions and support of right wing causes prompted the first billboard alteration. Unions were supporting a boycott of Coors.

Learn more about Truth in Advertising here.