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Writing Against the Billboards

Writing Against the Billboards

By Gregory Betts

Have you ever had an argument with a billboard? You quarrel with it at a stoplight, on a sidewalk in its glare. You might push against its insidious mist, but it will still seep into your unconscious. Advertisements work because we, the readers of our environment, can’t keep them out. They are like headlice, to jump metaphors, they work best when they are ubiquitous. Burrowing skull gnats, they breed with little tiny seeds scattered across the periphery of our daily experience. The philosophers say that we are born into the house of language, that the words we know express the limits of our thinking. The psychologists say that our memories are linked to language acquisition, that we only remember things when we can talk about them. The advertisers hear their well-wrought slogans spill from your lips as if by mistake and say that you just proved advertising worked.

For a few years now, a billboard has been haunting the city of St. Catharines. It began in isolation over on Fourth Avenue and has, like white folks in Canada, spread too easily. I was hoping it was a whim, an ad made before she had a chance to consult a designer, a female friend, a feminist, but its longevity suggests this is now a conscious design and strategy. Do you know which ad I am referring to? Have you been having an argument with it too?


What a lousy thought. I asked my friend Simone de Beauvoir what she thought of the ad campaign, and she casually replied, “The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new.” If it is not new, why is it so irritating? Simone purred: “Woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria. These peculiarities imprison her in her own subjectivity. She is the Other.” The woman proposed by the billboard is irrational, bullheaded. She isn’t a lawyer, a professional. She is trying. The joke is that she is an over-emotional arguer in men’s clothing. She is the trial.

Advertisements do not want to be read. They want to pervade, harden into clichés within our imaginarium and explain the world back to us. They want certain products to be the means by which the world makes sense. What kind of a world am I arguing against here? With what tools?

My dead, old friend Marshall McLuhan happened by, interrupting my conversation with de Beauvoir, and pointed out the window. “The city is a classroom,” he says plaintively. I google a statistic: companies spend $17 billion on advertising in Canada, which given our penchant for American TV and the embedded ads in movies is only a fraction of the ad-content we see. The world is our classroom: we are learning from this content. Marshall digresses: “We need art to reveal what it means. The ordinary procedures and environmental patterns of a society don’t become visible until the artist creates this counter-environment of art objects.”

Marshall disappears into thought, but Anna Szaflarski waves from the street. She is holding cutouts of newspaper headlines, inviting us to join her in decoding our linguistic environment. “The lines between,” she says, holding up an array of Dadaistic headlines — GM is losing more jobs, GM shifts gears, GM To Lay Off 2,500 — she looks suddenly furtive: “the eyes conveys the obvious hostile environment.” She hands me her new pamphlet Letters to the Editors (a bi-weekly journal, also available at that she is circulating by hand and digit, with a new essay called “A Language to be Destroyed.” She does not propose an argument with the billboards and the unconscious economy that shapes our world (and words), but she offers a small vantage-point to see it outside of itself. Their words become reflective rather than insidious. The louse is suddenly pinned and encased in glass.

“Have you seen Clelia Scala’s masks?” Sheila Watson asks. “There’s one where she takes Sinclair’s novel, the words, and covers the face with pages. He was always trying to reveal himself, you know, through his stories. In her mask, there’s a cut, as if the words are ready to expose what needs to be seen.” The pages peal away revealing more language, more ways to see the language that defines us. Watson has already returned to her book.

We have, then, with this new pamphlet and this series of literary masks, suddenly in our midst a linguistic counter-environment. Being outside the culture bears a risk: in issue 24, Szaflarski cautions, “an ability to listen in, grants you nothing but closed doors […] someone has to pay for the growing pains of a secret transforming into common knowledge.” Bad billboards, sure, but have you ever tried arguing with economy?

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