At first glance it was just another ad. Hovering above the velveteen subway seat, Bic implored women to buy disposable razors. For smoother, sexier legs, the image hinted. It wasn’t so different from the other posters, receding down the train in a neat row of steel-framed boxes.
Except that this one crossed a line.
Featuring a skirted woman bending in a come-hither pose and cheerily stocking her grocery basket with cakes, the ‘50s-era throwback illustration left me seething. “For legs that beckon,” the slogan read, implying a kind of objectification more deliberate than fortuitous. I could see the design team now: a roundtable of admen clad in business casual, laughing about how big they’d be allowed to draw the figure’s breasts before their pitch risked rejection.
I did plan a conventional protest. But when I got home I realized that my letters would go unread. Complaints would fall into an abyss. Newspapers wouldn’t care. Nothing would change, and the little picture that so ravaged my sense of personal validity would hang in every subway car until the ad contract ran its course.
But I couldn’t just do nothing; so I called out to allies. A single friend showed up that night, markers in hand, ready to brave the transit constables and ‘subvertise’ the offending ad. Compelled by manifestos in old copies of Adbusters, we paid our fare and hopped between trains and stations, ignoring the shocked stares of passengers as we alternated between tearing the posters from their designated frames and scribbling our dissent on those we left intact.
“It’s like the ‘60s never happened!” we wrote on some. On others, sarcastically: “Feminism? What’s that?”
It was undeniably an act of vandalism, one far surpassing the TTC’s usual panoply of hastily scrawled graffiti tags and inked moustaches. But the confession of a Toronto woman last month, whom the Star reported to have inscribed “you don’t need this” on cosmetic surgery ads, reminded me that I’m not alone in my anger. Other passengers, too, have turned to vandalism in protest and tweeted their support of the #youdontneedthis subvertising campaign. Clearly, when ads impinge on positive self-image, shouting back with a Sharpie might be the only way for some riders to reclaim a sense of worth.
Ads for cosmetic surgery don’t technically violate the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards (CCAS), but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt. For years, researchers have confirmed that when we compare ourselves to idealized images, we feel worse about our own traits. Advertisers harness that insecurity to sell their products, and despite the CCAS’s explicit prohibition of fear tactics, the technique lives on in subtle forms.
Some, inevitably, scoff at our petty crusading. But even Twitter activism still constitutes resistance: there’s meaning in even the smallest gestures. Let us not forget that acts as personal and pedestrian as refusing to give up a seat on a bus, or storming the streets with breasts bared, have historically led to monumental achievements in law, policy, and social orthodoxy.
Declining to sit silently across from a message of oppression, even if it means violating a bylaw, allows us to take back the personhood threatened by tasteless campaigns. If the TTC’s advertising selection committee shrugs away that responsibility, then it’s up to us — in all of our hashtagging, ink-wielding glory — to make a mark when ads threaten the integrity of our public spaces.
Malone Mullin is a fifth-year student studying philosophy.