BUGA UP – You’ve come a long way baby

Over 50 years ago it was normal to smoke in airplanes, cinemas, workplaces and restaurants, and we were surrounded by cigarette advertising. Tobacco companies wooed us into believing that smoking made us look suave and sexy, or rugged and handsome, and that their products were not a health hazard. Overall, governments were complicit and a lack of political will left tobacco companies unchallenged for a long time. Baby boomer kids would sing along to the jingle for Escort cigarettes – join the club, join the club, join the Escort club (only 35c to join) – and watch the Flinstones on TV (‘brought to you by Winston cigarettes’). Watching young teens smoking was as normal as buying Redskins or Choo Choo bars on the way home from school during the 1960s. After all, teenagers thought it was pretty cool to smoke and the tobacco industry had a vested interest in recruiting smokers.

It now seems unbelievable that tobacco companies could advertise as widely as they did, often targeting children and young people through television advertising and sports sponsorship. The bans on cigarette advertising were incremental and direct tobacco advertising on radio and television was phased out between 1973 and 1976. Billboard tobacco advertising was banned across Australia in 1993 and tobacco advertising through sports sponsorship was banned as recently as 2006. The Tobacco Plain Packaging Act was legislated by the Australian Government in late 2011 with the clear objective to improve public health by actively discouraging people from taking up smoking and encouraging smokers to stop. Even more recently, to coincide with World No Tobacco Day, smoking outdoors in public places was banned in South Australia. This action aligns South Australia with other states, although NSW is lagging behind, with a delay on the enforcement of outdoor smoking until 2015.

A number of forces contributed to the eventual ban on cigarette advertising and one of the more interesting episodes in this history is the part that the unorthodox movement BUGA UP played.

The group started with three people – Ric Bolzan, Bill Snow and Geoff Coleman – and officially came into existence about one year after the first billboard was ‘refaced’ in October 1979. A meeting in the home of one of the founding members occurred one rainy night (the rain making it impossible to reface more billboards that night). The discussion focused on strategies and improved coordination to underpin activity and send out the message that cigarette advertising needs to stop and stop now. Rather than continuing with the random billboard refacing, a decision was made to name the group and get organised.

The name BUGA UP was a play on the uniquely Australian ‘bugger up’ and linked the idea of using satirical messages to communicate anti-smoking messages. The very next refaced billboards were located on Parramatta Road opposite Sydney University and were signed using the full name BILLBOARD UTILISING GRAFFITISTS AGAINST UNHEALTHY PROMOTIONS. From then on, billboards were signed using only the BUGA UP acronym. Strong media interest followed and the BUGA UP movement was born.

In October 1980, BUGA UP held its first public meeting and launched the BUGA-UP Summer Offensive. Hundreds of tobacco and alcohol billboards were refaced during the offensive and growing public support prompted the establishment of a post office box and fighting fund to enable supporters to lend financial support. Funds did flow in and these were used to publish material and pay, where possible, fifty per cent of the fines for the BUGs who were caught.

The group was unstructured with no formal membership or office bearers, but during its peak, the Sydney-based movement spread to Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth. Those active in BUGA UP included people aged 8 to 71 years of age, from a variety of professions and backgrounds. BUGA UP inspired similar movements in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The London-based group COUGH UP even modelled themselves on BUGA UP. The spread and breadth of the campaign were much greater than many people realised.

It was not only a lack of social responsibility and total disregard for health displayed by the tobacco and advertising industries that drove founding members to action, it was also the visual assault of the billboards which they saw as a blot on the landscape.

BUGA UP attracted a number of professionals including doctors and academics to its activities. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans was fighting the tobacco industry and raising awareness through the Non Smokers Movement Australia and the radio program ‘Puff Off’. As a surgeon, Chesterfield-Evans saw firsthand the destructive properties of tobacco as he treated patients dying from tobacco-caused cancer. He saw refacing billboards as a moral rather than an illegal act.

Those active in BUGA UP were motivated to fight against the brazen right that wealthy corporations enjoyed: pushing carcinogenic products through seductive advertising. BUGA UP saw tobacco advertising as drug pushing and turned to civil disobedience as a way to redress the social irresponsibility that the governments of the day permitted.

BUGA UP successfully used humour and satire to drive its message through careful and often minimal billboard ‘refacing’. Blocking out several letters of ‘Benson and Hedges’, for example, produced ‘Be on edge’, while ‘John Player Special’ could be changed to ‘Lung Slayer Special’. The altered names were far from the original message that the tobacco companies intended and effectively turned the message on its head. BUGA UP correctly figured that humor was the best way to send their anti-tobacco messages.

Even though BUGA UP is best remembered for ‘refacing’ billboards, they were also involved in many other forms of consciousness-raising, such as publishing regular newsletters like Billbored, and producing anti-smoking merchandise, such as tee-shirts, postcards and posters. These ‘products’ made it easier for concerned health-care professional to support and promote the illegal activities and apply pressure on state governments. BUGA UP also used stalls at street fairs as part of their arsenal in their quest to educate the public and shame the tobacco industry. BUGA UP was involved in several elaborate media events, sabotages and spontaneous activism directed against the tobacco industry.

A fine example of spontaneous direct action and a quick win for BUGA UP occurred in a supermarket at Chatswood that was trialling plastic bags carrying cigarette advertisements. A BUGA UP activist who happened to be shopping that day refused to have his groceries packed in bags emblazoned with the advertising. He called a fellow activist who also came to the store, filled his trolley to overflowing and proceeded to cause havoc at the cash register by refusing the plastic bags. The store manager was called. Shortly thereafter, ‘poor customer acceptance’ was cited as the reason for aborting the trial. The sabotage was a success!

BUGA UP was involved in a number of media stunts too, including entering the Philip Morris competition in 1982 to find the new ‘Marlboro Man’. The Marlboro Man campaign is cited as one of the most successful campaigns of all time, quadrupling sales of the brand within two years. Never shy of a challenge, BUGA UP found the perfect new Marlboro Man entrant in Frank, an elderly man in a wheelchair who smoked through his tracheotomy. Posters of Frank as the Marlboro Man were pasted across Sydney successfully tainting the Philip Morris campaign. In the spoof, Marlboro Man was changed to Marble Row Man, providing witty comment on the long-term effects of smoking on the lungs. The Philip Morris organisers were pretty unhappy as their prime media event had to be held at a secret location under tight security through fear of a visit by the activists.

Another stunt was the BUGA UP Logies, known as the ‘Bogies’. With some of the glamour and many times the humour, this was the staging of an alternative advertising extravaganza. BUGA UP held seminars and entertainment at the former NSW Institute of Technology at Broadway NSW. Awards were presented in categories such as the most misleading advertisement, the most inane jingle, the advertisement breaking the most regulations and the ugliest billboard.

Tobacco-sponsored events were often ‘visited’ by BUGA UP activists in a number of well-orchestrated manoeuvres, such as the demonstration at the Art Gallery of NSW, which was hosting a Phillip Morris exhibition. A Marlboro Formula 1 racing car was placed in the foyer as a ‘technology as art’ exhibition. BUGA UP saw this as insidious advertising and in an elaborate performance piece, Ric Bolzan chained himself to the Marlboro racing car before reading a piece on the abuse of art and exploitation of the Art Gallery by the tobacco industry. BUGA UP activists handed out plastic cups full of cigarette butts and oil, and encouraged the willing audience to drop them over the car. Fortunately for Bolzan, in the ensuing court case the charges of ‘serious alarm or affront’ were dismissed.

BUGA UP had plenty of colourful characters, but two of the more eccentric BUGS are now fondly remembered in their obituaries on the BUGA UP website: Lord Bloody Wog Rolo and fred cole (he insisted on small letters). Lord Bloody Wog Rolo changed his name from Rolando Mestman Tapier by deed poll reasoning that he had been called a ‘wog’ so often that he best make it official. Bill Snow, another founding member often engaged the police by calling in at local police stations to talk about the evils of the tobacco industry and BUGA UP’s counter attacks. Snow was also the ambassador at the 1984 BUGA UP embassy, strategically positioned opposite a leading advertising agency in North Sydney.

BUGA UP also attracted women to the cause. Lord Bloody Wog Rolo and his future wife Ros met in 1983 at a billboard they were both about to ‘reface’. Marge, a driving force of the BUGA UP movement in Melbourne, was a mature woman then, who is now in her eighties. Marge would conceal her spray cans inside her cape and discreetly reface billboards and the cigarette advertisements on trams as they passed through central Melbourne. Often dressed in a houndstooth check, she looked the archetypal aunt rather than an activist. Other women included Sydney-based activist Daniele; her modus operandi was refacing using prefabricated stickers (a method also favoured by others such as Brian Robson and fred cole).

BUGA UP was active from 1979 to the mid-90s and their accomplishments can be attributed to the passion and tenacity of not just the older and founding members, but also their success in attracting new talent which reinvigorated the cause. Peter Vogel, businessman and inventor of the Fairlight synthesiser, and Lachlann Partridge were among the early recruits. Their call to action included taking up the invitation ‘So if an advertisement bothers you, bother us’ by the former Advertising Standards Council (ASC) (self-regulation of the advertising industry was at that time administered through them). Lachlann and Peter established the Advertising Double Standards Council (ADSC) with the satirical motto: ‘If advertising standards are good, then double standards are TWICE as good’ and went into overdrive ‘bothering’ the ASC with witty letters of complaint against tobacco advertisements. Although the ASC alleged the complaints to be frivolous, the ADSC often pointed to clear breaches by the tobacco companies. In July 1985, Vogel was declared a vexatious litigant by the ASC and was informed that his complaints would no longer be investigated regardless of their merit.

In 2013 it will be twenty years since tobacco advertising on billboards was banned. Because of their unorthodoxy, BUGA UP were largely unsung heroes of the fight, however Nigel Gray (head of the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria 1968—1995) has since publicly commented on the decisive role they played in the history of tobacco control.

In preparation for this significant anniversary, a sizeable amount of content has been uploaded to the official BUGA UP website to capture this important and unique chapter of Australian history. Many Sydney dwellers over the age of 45 will recollect BUGA UP’s greatest hits (billboards were often hit by paintballs). For everyone else, the website presents a comprehensive history of the world of tobacco advertising during that era and a struggle where David finally beats Goliath. A comprehensive collection of more than 120 press clippings taken from articles from Australian, Canadian, American and British newspapers and journals involving BUGA UP are now available on the website.

While BUGA UP is essentially in hibernation, it is a long way from forgotten. BUGA UP is still approached from time to time with requests for interviews and information. The group is often referenced in literature as being possibly the first example in Australia of culture jamming – in fact the term ‘culture jamming’ was coined in 1984, well after the formation of BUGA UP.

Recently an activist group targeting the use of plastics requested the use of the BUGA UP brand. Although BUGA UP would most certainly support the campaign against plastics, a decision was made not to dilute BUGA UP’s strong association with the anti-tobacco push and the request was declined.

Interestingly, the use of word ‘UP’ in modern activist groups is likely an acknowledgement of the campaign and its place in modern activism.

BUGA UP would love to hear from supporters and especially from those who were moved to take direct action with spray can in hand against the tobacco industry. Use the contact page at bugaup.org and share your story.

Frances van Zinnen

Frances van Zinnen is a Sydney based public servant making her writing debut. Frances' interests include social justice and sustainability. She strives towards the Aristotelian ideal of living the 'eudaimonic' (flourishing) life.

More by Frances van Zinnen ›

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  1. Good to see the battles were fought and won on an artistic / social / political / health / humorous & witty level………..the struggle continues

  2. A good summary of the situation. Sadly, the Health Establishment wants to claim all the credit for the demise of tobacco in Western society, yet there was a very long stale mate due to a lack of political action until BUGA UP formed a new pole of anti-tobacco radicalism, which made all other actions moderate and drew attention to the morality as opposed to the traditional legality of their advertising. It is time the story was told, and this is very good start.

  3. A glorious celebration of fascism in Australia. Ze state vill make you live healthy! We can all learn a lot about nannying adults from this campaign.

    1. Oh yes, it’s totally fascist to make it illegal to do something that will slowly kill them and force the rest of society to pay, especially when second hand smoke is deadly itself, as now proven.
      Yes, let’s just let corporations lie to stupid people and convince them to do things that are deadly, or lie so pervasively that we don’t realize that there is anything wrong with smoking.

      1. That’s right. BUGA UP were incensed by the total lack of moral responsibility on the part of the tobacco industry. The Governments of the day were very slow in taking action.

  4. Steve
    I think you’ve misunderstood the intentions of BUGA-UP. The aim was consciousness raising which led to changed community attitudes about advertising unhealthy products, not pepole’s right to consume them – whatever the risk!

  5. I appreciated this excellent review of one of the foremost examples of public health activism that resulted in societal change. As editor of the Medical Journal of Australia in 1982-3, I had the opportunity to get to know many of the creative geniuses of BUGA-Up. In 1977 I had founded DOC (Doctors Ought to Care) the first physicians activist group dedicated to undermining the promotion of cigarettes and other lethal lifestyles by purchasing mass media space for satirical counter-advertisements. We also made the first-ever street protests, which we called “house calls,” on tobacco-sponsored events such as the Benson & Hedges 101s Film Festival, which we renamed Benson & Heart Attacks and the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, which we called the Emphysema Slims. In February 1978, DOC had 64 physicians and other health professionals line up in front of the Miami Herald building, each holding one of the 64 cigarette ads that had appeared in the newspaper in January. Unlike BUGA-Up, DOC never advocated flaunting the law, although we were sued by Philip Morris and I was also threatened with arrest on several occasions at our housecalls. One of our members in the DOC chapter in the state of Washington, Dr. Michael Lippman, did graffiti a cigarette billboard, for which he was arrested and brought to court. He’s lucky he wasn’t shot, which is one reason refacing of cigarette billboards did not catch on in the US (contrary to the claim in the article).. When I was offered the editorship of the MJA and moved to Sydney, one of the first things I did was to search for the kindred satirical spirits behind BUGA-Up. I stumbled upon my first clue at a Lebanese café which had a BUGA-Up-refaced cigarette sign on its wall that had been “removed” from a local store. This café proved to be a meeting place for the group’s loosely organized band of brothers and sisters. One name not mentioned in the article is Brian Robson, whose specialty was tagging abandoned vehicles with slogans like “MARLBORO MADE ME A WRECK.” Invariably, cars that had sat there for weeks or months would be removed in a few days. Brian once dedicated a vehicle to me in Bondi with the tag “4AB.” Other highlights for me in 1982 were appearing in court in behalf of Fred Cole; brainstorming with Brian at another Lebanese café about creating a World Anti-Tobacco Museum–“a museum about when people used to smoke”; joining the group at the Sydney Art Museum for Ric’s brilliant performance in chaining himself to the Marlboro race car as the crowd tossed cigarette butts on the vehicle while museum personnel stood frozen in horror; and publishing a cover story in the Medical Journal of Australia about BUGA-Up’s Marble-Row Man. (Exactly one member of the Australian Medical Association complained, and there was front-page newspaper coverage across the country.) A few days before publication, I had received a letter from the lawyers for Philip Morris demanding that the article be withdrawn. How they got wind of this remains a mystery. Amusingly, the lawyers names were Sly and Russell. In addition to later publishing the first-ever theme issue on tobacco of any journal at the MJA (March 5, 1983)–the only issue ever to have gone into a second printing, I was also pleased to publish an article by Dr. Arthur Chesterfield-Evans on BUGA-Up in the first tobacco theme issue I edited for the New York State Journal of Medicine in December 1983. A marvelous TV news documentary on BUGA-Up also appeared on Australian TV in 1983. I believe that BUGA-Up, the Canadian Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, and DOC–all grassroots activist groups that emerged in the late-1970s–were the driving force that impelled conventional (ie, wealthy) health organizations to join the fight (and in the case of the already active Victoria Cancer Council to become even more outspoken) against cigarette smoking and its promotion. ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) in the US and the UK were also major influences, as were many local clean indoor air advocacy groups in the US such as Minnesota Association of Nonsmokers and Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP) organizations in New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Maryland, Colorado, Miami, and elsewhere. But none took greater risks or stood up for the issue of ending the promotion of tobacco products and other consumer rip-offs than those brave colleagues in BUGA-Up.

    Alan Blum, MD
    Professor and Endowed Chair in Family Medicine
    Director, The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society
    Tuscaloosa, Alabama USA

  6. Many thanks for your comments. It was very interesting to read about the anti-smoking activities in the US.

    You are correct in saying that people should have been mentioned however they preferred to remain anonomyous. There are so many individual and collective Buga Up stories it was difficult to mention everyone.

    I was motivated to write the article because I was concerned that Buga Up was fading from people’s minds – and that the Australian goverment was taking all the credit for tobacco controls and the reduction in smoking. Buga Up was an important part of the social consciousness-raising (along with proactive health professionals) that pushed the government to react.

  7. My mum is one of the activists mentioned in the article, and I would like to publicly state how incredibly proud I am of her and of her lifelong dedication to her beliefs and to the social good.
    Married to a medical professor and a trained early childhood educator, she grew up inspired by her own parents with a strong sense of social justice and a belief that if something needed doing, one shouldn’t wait around for someone else to do it. Her tireless energy, positivity and sense of community has been an inspiration to many for over 50 years, and continues to be a positive influence on everyone around her. Her involvement with BUGA-UP was just one of the myriad ways she has worked for local community, for the environment and for the downtrodden (the education of third-world women and population control her current major projects) her entire life.
    On behalf of everyone who has never met you but has benefited from your work, thank you for everything mum. The world will be a poorer place if you ever decide to leave us!

  8. Hi Carol,
    BUGA-UP was a movement with no official membership so difficult to say what everyone is doing.
    I can say that in 2017, a few have retired from careers in the public service, one remains a politically active doctor, one is a now teacher but I cannot tell you beyond that. Frances

  9. I am forever grateful to the BUGA UP activists, as they helped me give up smoking back in the late 70’s. The reversal of image-based Psychology was most amusing. The current need is for a similar campaign to take on sugar.

  10. Hi Gordon
    Thanks for your comment and a good thing you gave up back then. I agree about the need to raise awareness about sugar. The activists from the 70’s are probably not physically up to the demands of a new billboard campaign though. Needs a younger generation to take it on. Frances

  11. Thanks for the article. I was one of the later BUGs and morew a lone operator but I met some of the luminaries. I still tell stories of Bill Snow, and had a most entertaining time at Rolo’s. For about 7 years I’d go raiding on random nights; spraying, paint-bombing and ripping down tobacco signs. Happy days! The key was to make people notice the ads rather than have them as background. It was a joy doing good and having a good time doing it. We need this sort of activism more than ever now.

  12. Hi Peter, Thanks for your comment. I agree we need a younger generation of activists to take on causes.
    I am sure the guys would love to hear from you via the contact form on the Buga Up website.
    Kind regards

  13. Our smoke-free and anti-tobacco movement Non-Smokers’ Movement of Australia Inc. was formed back in 1977 when Brian McBride successfully sued a smoker/bus-driver for assault. The assailant had deliberately lit up and blown smoke in Brian’s face.
    (Thoracic surgeon Arthur Chesterfield-Evans led NSMA for ten years then led the Democrats in NSW Senate). Brian led the group in those years.
    When Brian McBride retired in 2003 I took over as President of a small, passionate group of health activists/advocates.
    We have continued to battle on every front for Every Body’s right to breathe clean air, free from the (now) well-documented toxins in tobacco smoke as well as against Big Tobacco’s (and friends in Gambling and Alcohol) influence on governments at all levels.
    “Trying to defend Big Tobacco is like trying to pick up a piece of excrement by the clean end.”

  14. bugger up is NOT a uniquely arseender expression. like a lot of your language it’s origins lie overseas, and many ozzes that travel are amazed at how far THEIR unique aussie words/ accents have spread, even the use of rhyming slang.
    A bit of logical thinking i.e. which came first due to the passage of time would help.

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