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Marketing & Sales

Why this fellow pasted cats all over the London underground

James Turner leased 68 ad locations in the London underground – and filled them up with pictures of cats. What was the point of that? Andreas Weck investigated.

04 Oct. 2016 Andreas Weck

German satirist Wolfgang J. Reus once said that advertising only distinguishes between economically interesting target groups and the remaining useless dregs of society. Advertising sells products and services – from cosmetics to construction loans to outrageously expensive luxury goods that hardly anyone actually needs.

Even advertising for not-for-profit organizations too frequently shows images that get people to open up their wallets and make donations. Dead elephants, hungry children and war-torn cities are thus also reduced to mere products. What ads do far too rarely today is share grand ideas and visions that have a positive impact, to effect social change all on their own.

James Turner is very conscious of this fact. This Englishman has spent his entire career in advertising. He spent long hours working on projects for Greenpeace, or more recently the Syria Campaign. And he noticed that advertising is far too limited these days. That plenty of creative minds were looking for new ways to use their talent for the social good. His response is called the Glimpse Collective.

He and his partners used a crowdfunding campaign to collect 23,000 British pounds, and used the money to paste pictures of cats all over a London underground station. He tells us why he thought this was necessary, and what he wanted to achieve.


Cats not ads: "We want to make people feel good again." James, what is your problem with advertising?

James Turner: We're not against ads per se. We just think that they should also be used differently from how they have been until now. Creative work has a huge impact on what we think and whether we appreciate the world we live in. There's no reason ads always have to be used to sell products. They can also be used to make people proud of the fact that they live in a tolerant society, for example. Or make them feel happy to be breathing clean air. At Glimpse we want to make people feel good again. Can advertising be creative, entertaining, artistic and socially engaged all at the same time?

Turner: Absolutely. Advertising makes things exciting and desirable. And that's exactly what we need when it comes to making the world a better place. It's a shame that social engagement is far too often viewed as pure activism to be pursued in the form of donations. There are so many talented people in advertising who want to do more. But they rarely get the chance, and that is incredibly frustrating. I also founded Glimpse to give these individuals the possibility to do more for society. And why else?

Turner: Well, mostly also to bring social change closer to people in the street. And to show that it is worth aiming for and can be appealing. I don't want to force people to act, I want to inspire them. Why is it important to reconquer public spaces?

"Advertising makes things exciting and desirable."

Turner: The London underground is a space like that. It helps us define how a society sees itself. If we're always surrounded by images of expensive handbags and private jets, as soon as we go outside, then we believe these things are important in life, that our world only works if we have these things. But with a little creativity we can change that. We want people to recognize that the whole world around us is transformable. It was created by people, and we can also change it. Our cats project clearly shows how fragile it is. Why did you choose cats for your current campaign?

Turner: First of all we love cats, but we could just as well have shown bananas or dolphins. We just wanted to show something that people like, to draw attention. And we wanted to show something that is free and not viewed as a packaged product that can be bought. We thought about woods and a camping trip with friends. But cats are much more powerful. We were convinced pretty quickly that they would make a good opening. How do people respond?

Turner: Mostly they stop short, stare at the posters and smile. Plenty of people do a double take, because at first they're confused. Some people take pictures with their smartphones and share them. Others just shake their head in disbelief. You have to see it for yourself to understand how differently people can react – sometimes it's strange and often simply fabulous. Were there also critics?

Turner: Yes, there were. Some people thought that we should have spent the money collected in the crowdfunding operation for charitable purposes. That is definitely important and of course we support the idea that people give their money to do good. But what we're doing is far more than just entertainment. People go to the movies to have a good time and be inspired. And what we do is a little bit similar. What do you think of adbusting – spoofing or modifying ads to twist their meaning and make them ridiculous? Is that also a legitimate way to take back public space?

Turner: We believe that a wide range of people and organizations trying to mix things up in different ways is always good. We respect everyone who uses their creativity to push people to think differently, to try to make the world a better place. And what will you do next?

Turner: The last few days have set off quite a storm, and first we have to find our footing again. We now have more than 1,000 members in the collective, and there are lots of ideas and a huge amount of energy in play. We're thinking about a project based on the notion of empathy, but we can't say anything definite about it yet. But anyone can come visit us and get the news straight from the front lines.