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Protestors march in Rio de Janeiro on June 24, 2013.

Felipe Dana/AP

Office workers huddle at their windows, peering down in disbelief. Thousands of protesters are marching along São Paulo's main Paulista Avenue, beckoning to them and chanting: "Vem pra rua, vem!" ("Come to the street, come!")

The slogan has become one of the few elements uniting the disparate groups that have taken to the streets in more than 100 cities across Brazil this month. The protest movement has caught the rest of the world by surprise, not to mention Brazilians themselves.

"That phrase actually comes from a Fiat commercial," explains Sophia Montero, an 18-year-old student, brandishing a neon pink banner condemning evangelists' attempts to pass a bill to "cure" homosexuality. "Everyone has been watching the advert on television at home so we started using it. Protesting is still very new for us, so . . . ."

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She is cut off when a friend pulls her out of the way of another group, this time campaigning against proposals to limit the investigative powers of public prosecutors. Among their banners is another activists' favourite: "O gigante acordou" ("The giant woke up"), made popular by a 2011 Johnnie Walker commercial.

Through no effort of their own, Italy's Fiat SpA and U.K.-based Diageo PLC, owner of the Johnnie Walker whisky brand, have become unofficial sponsors of Brazil's biggest protests since the impeachment of president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992.

But is the free advertising worth it? Although the protests have largely been seen in a positive light, the volatile movement has also claimed four lives and led to sporadic looting and vandalism.

The subversion of ads, so-called subvertising, is common among political activists worldwide. But Brazil's protesters have taken an unusual route, co-opting the popular ad slogans to rally support for unrelated causes. It is an indication, sociologists say, both of excessive consumerism and political alienation.

"Many protesters don't have any connection to political parties, so they borrow the messages from the world they are immersed in – and for the past few years that has been a world of consumption," says Dennis de Oliveira, a media professor at Brazil's USP university.

Fiat, Brazil's most popular carmaker accounting for 23 per cent of new car and light-vehicle sales, launched its "Vem pra rua" campaign last month as part of its most expensive marketing project in the Latin American country this year. Analysts estimate it cost the company at least 20-million reais ($9-million U.S.).

Aired just before Brazil kicked off the Confederations Cup, the warm-up for the football World Cup next year, the commercial shows fans taking to the streets to celebrate the victory of the Brazilian national team. "Come to the street, because the street is the biggest football stand in Brazil" go the lyrics to the catchy soundtrack.

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It was widely seen as a cunning way of cashing in on Brazil's football mega-events without paying Fifa, the tournament's organising body, to be an official sponsor. Then Brazilians took Fiat's "call to the streets" literally. Over the past two weeks, more than 140 Facebook groups called "Vem pra rua" have sprung up, while the hashtag #vemprarua has become a generic protest reference on Twitter.

Simple and inclusive, the phrase has resonated with Brazil's first-time activists, for whom the act of protest itself may be as important as their particular cause.

Fiat took the commercial off air at the weekend. The company said this was always the plan, but remained evasive about when, or if, its "Vem pra rua" slogan would return. "The campaign's focus is solely and exclusively the joy and passion of football," the carmaker emphasised.

"For Fiat, the risks of being linked to the movement far outweigh any benefits," says Marcello Queiroz, editor in chief of Jornal Propmark, an advertising and marketing magazine. The politicization of football, with violent clashes with riot police during Confederations Cup games and protesters' criticism of stadium costs and even football stars, has made Fiat's positioning of itself as a quasi-sponsor of the tournament untenable, he says.

Diageo's Johnnie Walker faces fewer risks. While the brand has also tried to distance itself from the protests, its association with the "The giant woke up" slogan has always been less explicit, says Mr. Queiroz.

The commercial, which shows Rio de Janeiro's famous landscape morphing into a giant who wakes up and starts walking, is a play on the depiction of Brazil in the national anthem as a giant "resting eternally."

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"The giant is no longer asleep – keep walking, Brazil!" is the ad's tag line. Launched in 2011, the slogan captured the period of optimism after the economy's impressive 7.5 per cent growth in 2010.

For protesters, though, it represents the people's political awakening. As one Twitter user put it: "Watch out because the giant is awake! If you don't stop corruption, we'll stop Brazil!" Corruption has become a particularly emotive subject after senior members of the ruling Workers' Party (PT) received jail sentences last year for a vote-buying scandal in Congress. They remain free, pending appeals.

Rafael Alcadipani, at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, an academic institution, says Brazilians' disenchantment with the political system as a whole is evident from the fact that protesters opted for commercial slogans in the first place. "It is a clear sign of the failure of traditional politics," he says, a point echoed by President Dilma Rousseff during a speech on Friday when she spoke of the need to re-engage Brazil's young population and "oxygenize" government.

After a decade of rapid consumer growth it is no surprise protesters look for inspiration from ad campaigns, but the protests are also an expression of malaise over this consumer-led model of development, says Mr. Alcadipani. Cars, washing machines and flatscreen TVs are no longer enough: Brazilians want better public services and better government.

Fiat's slogan is a case in point. While the carmaker has become a household name because of a boom in vehicle sales, its slogan was initially used by protesters this month to campaign for fewer cars and better public transport.

"Fiat is part of the problem in this sense but protesters don't seem to make this association," says Leandro Leal, a freelance copyrighter in São Paulo. "Brazil's model of social inclusion has been one that prioritizes consumption, so instead of encouraging drivers to use public transport we have given credit to the poor so they can buy cars," he says.

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But while the "giant" is now awake and on the streets, it may be some time before it shakes off its addiction to shopping. Hardware stores across the country have been offering "protest kits" for as much as 240 reais, with top-of-the-range gas masks.

"I've never seen anything like this in Brazil," says Edwin Portal, a Peruvian who moved to São Paulo 20 years ago. He now spends his days chasing protesters to sell them 25-real flags while his friend struggles to keep up, pushing along a cart of soft drinks and beer.

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