No billboard in San Francisco is safe from 'liberators' with their own ideas Marlboro man becomes a real bore after group tweaks advertising


SAN FRANCISCO -- One day, the Joe Camel billboard advertised "genuine taste." The next day it read "Am I Dead Yet?"

The Marlboro man's billboard turned into a real sleeper, changing from Marlboro to Marlbore overnight, with the word "yawn" added near his mouth for effect.

And just last weekend, Apple Computer Corp.'s Amelia Earhart billboard was changed from "Think Different" to "Think Doomed," a reference to the legendary pilot's fatal attempt to fly around the globe.

The Billboard Liberation Front is back, bringing its own twist on advertising and social commentary to billboards of Apple and other companies in the San Francisco area, the latest in a 21-year history of ad alterations.

"It's getting harder and harder for people to speak their minds -- that's what we're doing," said Jack Napier, an original founder of the group. His "name" is also that of the Joker's alter ego from "Batman."

"Having a diversity of opinions out there is better," he said.

No billboard is safe. And the activity, which can cost billboard companies thousands of dollars, is illegal.

The 30 or so members of the secret organization are professionals at what they do, capable of scaling tall buildings with a single ladder or hanging from a billboard in a harness while they do their dirty work.

Some of the members have jobs in the advertising industry, Napier said, participating in the alterations because "it's a way to have a creative outlet that's not business or work."

The group doesn't have any particular political or social beliefs, Napier said. Some billboards just present better opportunities for manipulation because of design, while others are chosen because they are at the center of controversy.

The group isn't opposed to billboards themselves -- they just don't like that only corporations can afford to use them.

Once an ad is selected for alteration, it can take months for the face-lift.

The group likes to be as professional and covert as possible, so the culprits take plenty of time to monitor motor and police traffic patterns at different times of the night. They go through painstaking attempts at creating imitations of the typeface they want to change.

A spokesman for Apple declined to comment on the billboard alterations.

Apple is the latest of a string of companies that have been targeted by the group.

The organization got its start in 1977 when members of the San Francisco Suicide Club -- a group devoted to pulling pranks -- altered two Max Factor billboards to protest the use of makeup to create a "pretty face."

The significance of that alteration, coupled with the brouhaha of being arrested, convinced Napier, Irving Glikk and Simon Wag-staff to form the new group. Others have tried to imitate them and similar groups have formed around the country.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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