A "Ruinair" billboard by artist Hogre calling out RyanAir for their contribution to global climate crisis (all images courtesy Brandalism)

Excessive airline travel has been one of the battleground issues in the public discourse on climate change, with wasteful behavior ranging from airlines running nearly empty planes during the pandemic to keep their runway time slots to Kylie Jenner taking a private jet across Los Angeles to avoid traffic. Brandalism, a collective of artists and activists, has gone on the offense with a guerrilla advertising campaign, posting some 500 satirical ads across Europe that lambast the airlines and agencies that are directly responsible for promoting a high-carbon lifestyle.

Ad protesting expansion of Bristol airport by artist Soofiya

Images and tag lines for the campaign were written by artists and call out specific companies like the Dutch airline KLM — which is currently enmeshed in litigation over charges of “greenwashing” ads that misrepresent the climate impact of air travel — as well Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways, Ryanair, EasyJet, SAS Airlines, ITA Airways and Etihad, and the industry body Iata. The ads have been appearing in Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Liège, Lisbon, Rome, Nantes, London, Bristol, Norwich, and other European cities, and bring focus not only to the problem of wasteful air travel, but the advertising that props them up.

Nine different artists lent their talents to the campaign: Hogre, Lindsay Grime, Matt Bonner, Michelle Tylicki, Darren Cullen, Street Market Subverttiser, Soofiya, BWA Design, and Roelof Bos. They represent the tip of the (melting) iceberg of artists who are centralizing issues of climate change and environmental injustice in their art practices.

In addition to anti-corporate rhetoric, the campaign employed street teams to “hack” ad sites through guerilla posting.

“Advertising for airlines and airports is driving up demand for flights and trashing the climate,” said Robbie Gillett of Adfree Cities, a United Kingdom-based network of grassroots advocates against corporate advertising, in a statement. “We urgently need to see the creation of viable, sustainable transport alternatives to flying that ensures job security for workers currently employed in aviation. In the meantime, a simple step that government, both local and national, can take is to prohibit advertising for polluting products — for the benefit of peoples’ health, air quality and the climate.”

Anti-KLM ad by Michelle Tylicki, calling out the airline’s recent legal troubles over “greenwashing” ad campaigns.

At first glance, the posters may resemble typical airline ads. But a closer look reveals cheeky phrases such as “Create a Less Sustainable Future” in a faux-billboard for KLM and “Low Fares to Plastic island” in one for “Ruinair,” a play on the airline Ryanair. One fake ad for Lufthansa depicted an airplane passenger reading a pamphlet illustrated with trees while a fire burns outside the plane window. The hashtag “#SayYesToTheEndOfTheWorld” is followed by the text, “At Lufthansa, we distract you with pictures of trees while we fry the planet.”

A parody of a Lufthansa ad

It stands to reason that airlines — or indeed any other corporations — invest millions in aspirational advertising campaigns because they drive consumer behavior. But the ethics of pushing high-carbon lifestyles is being increasingly called into question, as a report released by Greenpeace earlier this year estimated that, in 2019, global airline advertising could be responsible for “influencing” emissions of up to 34 MtCO2 — the equivalent of burning 17 million tons of coal, or roughly the annual emissions of all Denmark in 2017. Another Greenpeace report suggests that advertising for airlines and cars in 2019 caused the equivalent of double the annual emissions of Spain that year.

Artist Darren Cullen brings a lively take on “green” travel, with a business class golf course for British Airways.

“By pushing high-carbon goods, such as cheap flights, advertising is complicit in driving carbon emissions higher at a time when we need to see an urgent reversal,” said Andrew Simms, co-director of the New Weather Institute. “Just like cigarette advertisements were eventually snuffed out from the 1980s onwards, governments and regulators need to step up to stop these companies polluting the planet and public space.” 

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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