What Looks Like Graffiti Could Really Be an Ad

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005; A01

The images are painted directly onto building walls in urban areas, graffiti-style. Wide-eyed kids, portrayed in a stylized, comic-book rendering, pose with a mysterious, hand-size gadget. One licks his like a lollipop. Another is playing paddleball with the thing.

What looks like artful vandalism, though, is really part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for Sony's PlayStation Portable, a device that can play games, music and movies.

In major cities such as San Francisco, Miami and New York, Sony has paid building owners to use wall space for the campaign, and the images have become a familiar sight. It's the latest effort by a big corporation to capitalize on the hot world of street art to reach an urban market that has learned to tune out traditional advertising.

Nike Inc., Time magazine and even stodgy International Business Machines Corp. are among the growing list of companies that have dabbled in street art to get their marketing messages out.

The trend makes some artists squeamish even as others start marketing firms or open galleries. In Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood, cell phone maker Nokia Corp. used sidewalk chalk drawings to promote its N-Gage, a cell phone aimed at gamers, when it launched the product in 2003.

Advertising Age critic Bob Garfield said that an increase in such edgy advertising campaigns, which attempt to create "buzz about buzz," are a sign that traditional advertising methods are failing.

"Marketers are desperate to find ways to reach people," Garfield said. "Especially young men, who are far too busy playing Grand Theft Auto to notice, say, a 30-second TV commercial."

Sony spokesman Patrick Seybold said the company's PSP campaign is aimed at a consumer segment he calls the "urban nomad," which he described as "consumers who are enjoying their entertainment on-the-go in an artistic and creative way." Sony's ads have not appeared in the District; according to the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, they would violate outdoor advertising policy.

The increasingly blurred lines between street art, graffiti and marketing is leading to strange situations. One graffiti artist was detained by police in Chicago last summer after he was caught spray-painting over a paid graffiti ad for Axe deodorant.

Among artists who risk arrest to put up paintings and posters they hope will surprise, provoke or delight passersby, the co-opting of street art by corporate America is touchy issue. Patrick McNeil, a member of a three-person street-art collective called Faile, accused Sony of "trying to cash in on an art movement where they and the product they are selling don't belong" and derided Sony's painters as "an army of pimped-out artists."

But street artists who do corporate work to pay the bills say they are doing the same creative work they did before, just in a different medium.

Artist Dave Kinsey was one of the pioneers in the field when he opened his design studio, Blk/Mrkt, in the Los Angeles area a decade ago. His shop, which has helped market such products as Mountain Dew soda and the band Black Eyed Peas, includes a gallery to promote up-and-coming artists.

Kinsey said his commercial work has helped clients get in touch with an audience they weren't communicating with effectively before. "If you do good work and you're happy with what you do, it can be in any environment," he said. "If you're an artist, you can apply your talents and your ideas to whatever it is."

Other street artists who do corporate work are critical of the stealthy aspects of Sony's campaign. Artist Shepard Fairey said he steers advertising clients away from trying to hide their sponsorship.

"Corporations are much better off being very open and being proud enough to say: 'We think this is a cool enough product to stand up under hipsters' scrutiny, we don't have to try and trick you,' " said Fairey, who used to be a business partner with Kinsey. "If it's not cool enough for that, they need to rethink the product itself."

Fairey gained underground fame for creating a perplexing series of stickers featuring a grainy image of wrestler Andre Roussimoff, accompanied with the line "Andre the Giant has a posse." For those who became hip to the project, spotting the stickers on street signs and in obscure urban areas across the globe became a minor pastime.

Now Fairey sells a line of clothes at his Web site, was commissioned to design the movie poster for the new film about Johnny Cash and does commercial graphics work for commercial clients such as Honda. In February, he will star in a video game about street art from Atari. MTV Films announced that it bought rights to make a movie based on the game.

For corporations, graffiti and street art can be a tempting way to get noticed. When Time magazine paid a graffiti artist to festoon a wall in the SoHo section of New York this summer, a local politician denounced it as underwriting the work of vandals. Time magazine Associate Publisher and marketing director Taylor Gray said the stunt was a success because it "cut through the clutter" of marketing messages to which New Yorkers are exposed every day.

Many street artists say they can intuitively grasp this strategy, even if it makes them cringe. For New York-based street artist Michael De Feo, the PSP campaign seems to elicit a shrug. "Who are we to say they can't do it?" he said.

De Feo, a high school art teacher who spends his evenings decorating cities with cartoonish paintings and stencils of flowers and sharks, said the worse crime in Sony's PSP ad campaign is a lack of originality.

"People seem to get all bent out of shape with campaigns like this, when the fact remains that most of the public has the ability to tell good art from bad," he said.

De Feo does not rank the PSP campaign as good art. "I think it really lacks creativity," he said. "It's boring."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company