Subverting Image and Meaning

Age UK Banner

The latest Facebook advertising campaign caught my attention for its simplicity and ability to convey its message in such a bold and minimalist way. The television advert from the “Friends” campaign verged into cliché territory, but its accompanying billboard and OOH campaign was no frills and aesthetically pleasing. It was refreshing to see such a clean and sleek design that actually benefited from so much blank space. In this case, less is most definitely more.

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However, such a simple design lends itself to imitation, parody and subversion. Age UK, a charity for the elderly, decided to positively subvert the meaning of the Facebook campaign to create a striking and powerful advert for itself. Its design mimics the original but replaces the imagery and wording. What results is a deeply thought-provoking creative that feeds off the original design to generate a new meaning and perspective. It’s a highly reactive, clever, and well-executed idea.


Somersby Cider parodies an Apple Store in its 2013 TV advertisement.


How common is this practice of stealing a design or meaning and using it for another purpose? It happens more than you might think. The above Somersby Cider TV spot is incredibly confusing if you’re unfamiliar with an Apple Store. But for those that are familiar, the advert takes on an entirely new level of meaning. It feeds off the Apple brand to fuel its own brand personality and story. The ideas and ideals behind an Apple store are subverted for the benefit of another brand.


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Harvey Nichols subverts the meaning of Christmas in its 2013 campaign.


Harvey Nichols took the idea of subversion one step further last year by subverting the entire meaning of Christmas. Traditionally a time of giving, the store decided to create a new line of cheap and basic products and called it the “Sorry, I Spent It On Myself Collection”. It encouraged shoppers to spend money on themselves over the festive period and give unremarkable gifts to friends and family. The line of products sold out and formed the basis of Harvey Nichols’ Christmas advertising campaign, winning many awards in the process. It took everything we know and love about a certain time of the year and flipped in on its head to great effect.


IKEA drops its catalogue into a new context already pre-populated with meaning.


The problem for successful and iconic brands is the heightened risk of subversion. The Apples, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Disneys of the world are forever being parodied and their brand meanings and messages are always being twisted and skewed. A further example of the Apple brand being parodied can be seen above. Something as simple an an IKEA catalogue can become loaded with new meaning when removed from its usual home and placed in a new context that is already pre-loaded with meaning.

Does the brand engaging in the subversion always emerge from the contest as the winner? I think this is the case, but subversion is also the highest form of flattery. To be imitated is to be well-known, revered and desired. Brands that feed off more successful ideas and concepts are ultimately paying homage to those that have come before them. An advertising world without subversion would be boring, bland and a less interesting place. Old ideas breed new ideas. The practice generates clever and powerful creatives that encourage us to think about the world around us in a different way.

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