See update below.
A group of residents in a southeasterly swath of the Mission District took cans of spray paint to a cluster of Vice Media billboards Thursday to deface advertisements they found offensive.
Among the offending ads is an image of a man castrating a lamb with his teeth, an image of a child with the caption “Right now on TV, 8-year-olds are getting stoned,” and a photo of four shirtless men captioned “Right now on TV, Thomas is getting in touch with bears.”
Cynthia Lasden, a teacher who lives near one of the billboards with her nine-year-old daughter, said the ads struck her as crossing a line and inappropriate for children.
The reference to eight-year-olds getting high, she said, normalizes underage drug use. The naked men and the use of the word “bear” to her connote a level of sexualization that she’d rather not encounter on the street. And the lamb being castrated… “What’s not offensive about that one?” she said.
The ads promote a new TV channel from Vice called Viceland. The channel is geared towards younger audiences and will host shows like “Action Bronson & Friends Watch Ancient Aliens” and a nightly newscast.
Viceland’s press representative did not return a request for comment by press time.
Lasden said she talks to her daughter about difficult subjects, and as a teacher, she’s happy to educate. But she wants to have control over when and how the topics come up.
“She knows about marijuana, it’s not a surprise,” she said. “I don’t have any problem talking about these issues with my kid but I want to choose when.”
In response, she called together a group of like-minded neighbors to protest the ads by defacing them. She and a few others used spray cans to obscure the objectionable parts of the ads — they replaced the word “stoned” with “library cards” so the text would read “eight year olds are getting library cards” and completely obliterated the lamb genitalia and bare chests of men.
“Eight-year-olds are getting stoned? That’s an abuse situation, that’s not advertising,” said Nancy Ivison. “It crosses too many lines all at once in a neighborhood full of children.”
In one case they obscured the word “touch,” crossed out the word “bears” and wrote “chipmunks” instead. In another case the word “bears” was replaced with “neighborhood activists.” Below the ad someone added “#stopewwgross” with an arrow pointing to “Viceland.”
“Make them into real bears,” one ad-vandal said. The men now sport ears.
Between targets, Debbie Gish suggested they tone down the satire.
“Instead of, ‘Oh, we’re gonna ridicule you back,’ maybe we should just have statements of fact,” she suggested. “Children live here.”
Lasden and another ad defacer, 15-year-old Julian Kleppe, said the disgust at the content of the ad had nothing to do with a distaste for the sexual orientation of the subjects, but rather what they found to be the exploitative nature of the imagery.
“I feel like they’re objectifying the bear community to generate attention,” Kleppe said.
Even among those who agreed the ads were offensive, there were differences of mind.
Lloyd T. Ellcessor said he simply stumbled upon the action and joined in because he, too disapproved of the ads — both as a father of young children, six and eight years old, and as someone who had his own first experience with marijuana at eight years old. Adrift at the moment and staying on a friend’s couch, Ellcessor is now also devoutly religious.
“The feeling of being next to God is better than any drug any man could ever make,” he said.
He added “WWJD” to one of the ads. Later, while others in the group simply deleted the “castrating” in the phrase “Thomas is castrating a lamb,” Ellcessor tried to add “of satan,” turning the phrase into “Thomas is a lamb of satan.” The other neighbors quickly intervened, saying they didn’t want to be associated with that kind of message — but once they left, Ellcessor added it back in, and “of satan” remains scrawled in yellow paint on one of the billboards.
Local businesses where the billboards are located are staying out of it, though some have been contacted by the frustrated residents. Workers there declined to comment, saying only that they do not have direct dealings with advertisers and their businesses are separate from the billboard business.
Two passerby stopped to inquire what was going on as the group went from ad to ad. One said while he understood why the residents took offense, he didn’t see the graffiti-censorship as particularly effective. Another was thrilled, and said the ads had bothered him too.
Update: Cynthia Lasden, the teacher who said the ads were inappropriate, said all four billboard locations were being plastered over with new ads. She said a worker changing the posters said his boss had decided to switch out the ads after the controversy.