The Bubble Project
Advertising is everywhere we look. It’s spreading faster and faster to every corner of every street. Public spaces, and the public in general, are helpless victims in this aggressive invasion. There is an inherent sense of powerlessness when faced with advertising messages, because we, as consumers, are treated as passive recipients. Advertising doesn’t ask for our opinion. It doesn’t engage us in an exchange. It only screams at us—whether we like it or not. The corporations behind these ads simply aren’t interested in listening to what we have to say because listening requires giving up control and being open for negative feedback. So how can we, the public have our voice heard? My own frustrations in confronting these issues gave birth to a device that cracks the system.
Four years ago, I was working as an art director at a global advertising agency in New York. The agency offered a good salary, friendly colleagues, easy hours, great benefits and a glamorous business card. I even had my own window office with a view, yet I was deeply frustrated. Even though I came up with innovative advertising ideas, which the client and agency both felt would engage consumers, the ideas always ended up being killed because of the conservative mentality that pervaded the corporate culture.
Clients and agencies tend to shy away from trying new approaches. New means risk. The initial excitement clients had over my ideas quickly gave way to fear of the new. Even if a good idea managed to escape the agency walls, it would likely go through a barrage of testing to make sure the ad didn’t offend anyone. The irony is, work coming out of this process usually isn’t liked by anyone.
After four years of trying to make good ideas see the light of the day, I realized I shouldn’t depend on others to make a great idea happen. The only way was to do everything on my own: creation, funding, production and distribution. I wanted to create a simple device that would instantly transform the way people see ads, giving them the power to respond. The speech-bubble sticker was the solution.
I financed the printing 20,000 bubble stickers and started carrying them with me all the time. Whenever I saw a street ad with a face—BANG!— I placed a blank bubble sticker next to it waiting to be filled by any anonymous passersby. I placed empty bubble stickers on ads everywhere: bus stops, telephone booths, subways, construction sites and building walls. Surprisingly, bubbles were filled in very quickly. To my delight, a lot of responses were smart and hilarious, so I started taking pictures of the results. Soon, I had thousands of filled-in-bubble photos.
In 2005, the Bubble Project was launched. Here, people can find the collected bubbles organized by themes: social commentary, sex and drugs, politics and religion, media and fashion, art and philosophy, humor, and personal messages. There are also downloadable bubble templates so people can make their own bubbles, for free. The site was featured on Boing Boing (the world’s biggest blog). In that one day, the Bubble site received over 50,000 visitors. This crashed my server, but opened a whole new world of possibilities. Other bloggers started to write about the project. Magazines, newspapers and several TV programs started to feature the Bubble story. Recently, Newsweek and ABC World News both featured stories on the Bubbles. People around the world are connecting with this project and are setting up their own Bubble sites: Italy (progettobolla.com), Argentina (proyectoburbuja.com) and Romania (coming soon), are some of the newest ones.
Like money, advertising itself is not good or bad. I do believe though that there are good and bad ways to use its power. I actually enjoy advertising when it entertains or makes me think. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with 99.9 percent of the ads I see. I also take issue with the proliferation of outdoor advertising, encroaching upon our public spaces. When we watch TV, we enter into an unwritten contract, agreeing to watch shows for free, in exchange for consuming a corporate message. Going outside now seems to have the same strings attached. The bubbles instantly cut this string, transforming million-dollar corporate monologues into free public dialogues. As my mentor and friend Stefan Sagmeister pointed out, “everybody wins with the Bubble Project.” The advertiser benefits because more people to look at their ads when they’re bubbled, and the public finally gets a chance to talk back and express themselves. We can all enjoy seeing the transformed ads once given the human touch of the public’s point of view.