"Drive cleaner. Or just pretend to." So says a supposed Volkswagen ad that went up on a Paris billboard for the global climate summit. The fake ad was one of 600 plastered around the city, mocking companies like Volkswagen along with the corporate sponsors of the climate talks.
"All of the companies addressed are direct contributors to climate change, and use greenwashing practices to uphold their brand image, both inside of and outside of the context of COP21," says Bill Posters, a pseudonymous artist behind Brandalism, the project that organized the street art protest.
The ads are a reminder that a green image doesn't necessarily mean much: Volkswagen, for example, was ranked as the world's most sustainable car company on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index until it was yanked from the list in October after the company's emission scandal.
Several other ads focused on the irony of the fact that a companies like Air France—part of one of the world's most polluting industries—were sponsors of the climate summit. "These companies that are part of the problem aim to present themselves as part of the solution in the climate debates," says Posters.
To be fair, Air France has committed to reduce carbon emissions. But it's not exactly an icon for new sustainable technology. Engie, another sponsor, is an energy company with some renewable production, but still sells fossil fuels. (The French government said they would have preferred fully renewable sponsors, but needed the money.)
"As long as the solutions presented do not radically readdress the core activities, and instead come up with and develop sideline changes, they will not offer the responses to climate change required and they will remain profit-driven decisions," says Posters.
Other billboards feature some of the world leaders who are in Paris for the conference, like David Cameron in a Formula One suit covered with fossil fuel company logos, or Shinzo Abe with power plants sprouting out of his head.
For the more than 80 street artists who worked on the project, it was a way to have a voice at a time when public protests are banned in Paris, and corporate advertising remains the dominant message in the city.
"While public space should be fundamentally democratic—a political space of sharing and debating—it has become increasingly privatized," says Posters. "Public spaces that are imbued with profit-driven messaging that is fundamentally promoting unsustainable consumerism (through modulating and normalizing certain values, desires and behavior) limit citizens' interactions with that space."
Within a few hours after the posters went up, the company that owns the billboards (JC Decaux, another sponsor of COP21) had started to take some of them down. A few remain, but the group is hoping that the biggest impact will happen online.
"Although we would like to see as many people as possible interact with
the posters on the streets, huge brands are mainly concerned with how
they are presented in media and in social networks," says Posters. "So we think the greatest impact comes from global coverage beyond the initial local encounters in the streets of Paris."