A billboard after intervention by Truth in Advertising. Put up November 26, 1980, at the corner of Cedar and Center Streets in Santa Cruz. Covered over February 1, 1981, after being up for 66 days. These overlay letters were hand drawn, with the capital C in “Cancer” being 2½ feet tall.
Images and captions courtesy Bob StaytonThe year was 1980 and no billboard was safe. A loose group of artists, designers, and troublemakers called Truth in Advertising (TIA) were makjing 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.
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.
Learn more about Truth in Advertising here.Related:This Painter Left Her Advertising Job to Become a Feminist Street ArtistThis Augmented Reality App Blocks Advertisements With Digital Art 600 Fake Ads Flood Paris to Protest Climate Talks