The journalist who was jailed for telling the truth

While the West turns its attention elsewhere, the Serbian media struggles to come to terms with last year's war. One ad agency's response has been to subvert international brands to capture people's despair, reports Meg Carter, while journalists are still being persecuted and jailed for reporting the facts

The words are familiar, but something's not quite right. Beneath the slogan "Always", a man's hand tips the contents of a two-litre bottle of Coca-Cola into the petrol tank of a car. Beside the familiar strip of Peugeot corporate blue and its slogan, "Ride of your life", a car sits perilously close to the edge of a demolished bridge that has collapsed into a river. And beneath an aerial view of the bombardment of a Serbian oil refinery is a Sony PlayStation console and the words: "It's not a game". Welcome to the real world of advertising promised by Windows 99.

The words are familiar, but something's not quite right. Beneath the slogan "Always", a man's hand tips the contents of a two-litre bottle of Coca-Cola into the petrol tank of a car. Beside the familiar strip of Peugeot corporate blue and its slogan, "Ride of your life", a car sits perilously close to the edge of a demolished bridge that has collapsed into a river. And beneath an aerial view of the bombardment of a Serbian oil refinery is a Sony PlayStation console and the words: "It's not a game". Welcome to the real world of advertising promised by Windows 99.

Windows 99, named after another image in the collection - of nine shattered and gaffer-taped windows pictured above the now all-pervasive Microsoft software's logo - is an exhibition of advertising images created by Hammer Advertising, an ad agency from Novi Sad in the former Yugoslavia, whose creatives found inspiration while being bombed by Nato forces early last year.

"When the bombing started and we could not work, this became a way of dealing with the situation," explains Milos Jovanovic, Hammer Advertising's creative director. "Working at home with photographs taken specially, we wanted to make our own expression, a form of resistance - both against Slobodan Milosevic and Nato. In our view they were both on one side, the ordinary people of the towns like Novi Sad they bombed were on the other."

During the bombardment, the Milosevic government's propaganda was heavy-handed to say the least, he adds: "It included people dressed as targets standing on the bridge, daring the bombers to attack. We were against this and wanted to find a smarter way of communicating with people in the West. We also wanted to avoid resorting to talk of water and food shortage, or images of crying babies. We felt there had to be another way."

There was. By juxtaposing household brand names and familiar advertising slogans from international campaigns known the world over with actual images of the devastating effects of the Nato bombing, Jovanovic and his colleagues produced a series of striking - and unsettling - images, subverting conventional advertising tactics to give the brands new meaning.

The Coca-Cola poster illustrates how the people of Novi Stad were forced to make do when siphoning black market petrol into their fuel tanks, he explains. The aerial image in the PlayStation ad was a screen grab from international satellite TV footage of one of the Nato spokesman Jamie Shea's press briefings. In another poster, for Lucky Strike cigarettes, a handwritten sign on a shop door apologises for lack of supplies. "Everyone smoked, but you had to be very lucky to find a packet of cigarettes," Jovanovic jokes.

Initially, the images - which weren't designed for actual use by the brands featured, although they have since been shown to the advertisers concerned and received no objection - were distributed to the outside world via the internet while the bombing was still underway. There followed a small exhibition in Novi Sad after the bombardment ended, which led to a series of exhibitions in countries around the world over the past year.

"Big brands are a uniting force. We all use them. They are instantly recognisable," Jovanovic adds. "It wasn't that we wanted to attack big companies for being part of the West, which was behind the Nato air strike, it was about using the so-called unreality of advertising to communicate the reality of our situation."

Reality is a strong and powerful tool but not one used so much in advertising. "Typically, advertising is about heightened reality - a vision created to inspire the consumer to aspire to a particular product," says Mark Fiddes, creative partner at London advertising agency, Davies Little Cowley Fiddes, which is staging Hammer Advertising's Windows 99 exhibition in London this week. "This is why someone like the photographer Oliviero Toscani adopted the tactics he took in his work for Benetton. His use of 'real' images is because every other image is mediated in some way."

News footage, however, is as mediated as the aspirational fantasies that result from adland's filter, Jovanovic believes. Especially in the case of the Nato bombardment. "Outside Yugoslavia, TV is what shaped public opinion," he observes. "But much of it only gave one side." Which is where advertising had a role to play. Jovanovic and his team's approach was to take the so-called "false reality" of the ad world and subvert it - an approach that has pretty much become house-style for his agency in all its advertising campaigns.

As one of Yugoslavia's largest, independent (in other words, not internationally - in particular, US - owned) advertising agencies, Hammer has established a reputation for creating advertising with a social context. As Jovanovic points out: "Ours is a culture where it is dangerous to be straight against Milosevic. So we picture our lives through our ads," he says. Since creating Windows 99 just over a year ago, he adds that he has found out who won the war between Serbia and Nato: "There are many theories," he says. But I know: me, my family and people like us have won."

Windows 99 is now showing at Davies Little Cowley Fiddes, 32-3 Gosfield Street, London W1P 8ED. For more information contact 020 7636 5552

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