In 1987, commuters in New York City started seeing posters on the street reading “Silence = Death.” The images were the work of the pioneering AIDS-awareness group ACT UP, and their stark simplicity made an immediate impact.
Two years later, the organization had a graphic-design arm, Gran Fury, which produced a new poster that appeared on the sides of buses showing three couples kissing, two of which were same-sex. Their message: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.” As works of both art and activism, the ACT UP posters gave a face to same-sex couples, inspiring compassion and encouraging awareness of what the group described as “government inaction and public indifference” to the AIDS crisis.
Such was the power of public images to transmit targeted messages long before the advent of social media. From Ben Shahn’s anti-H-Bomb design to the Guerrilla Girls’s campaign against gender inequality in art museums, posters have a long history of engaging and informing people through a mixture of artistry, wit, and economy. It would be easy to assume that posters have lost some of their impact in a hyper-connected landscape. But in many ways, the rise of social media has given protest and advocacy posters a bigger audience than ever before, while platforms like Facebook are creating ways to let users craft images featuring their own photo to further the causes they identify with.
This doesn’t mean posters aren’t facing challenges in the Internet age. Commercial ads and billboards are almost always placed in approved venues, and have adapted well to the new technology of the 21st century, with many featuring QR codes, video sequences, and even facial-recognition software. But the humble advocacy poster is printed with ink on paper, and usually hung illegally on buildings, lampposts, and hoardings replete with the “post no bills” imperative. Since most of those locations are controlled by commercial businesses that guard their real estate, they’re often removed before they can be seen by more than a handful of people.