Street Art Sell Out: 'Guerilla' Advertising Masquerades as Graffiti
Companies are increasingly turning to graffiti and street art to give themselves a more youthful image. Taggers complain that this commercialization could destroy the street art subculture.
The deed was committed in downtown Berlin in front of hundreds of eyewitnesses. Last Saturday, shortly before midnight, as crowds of revelers were underway in the city's trendy Kreuzberg neighborhood, the vandals struck. They spattered black dots, at a height of 10 meters, onto a white fire protection wall at the Görlitz train station. The dots eventually formed an image of US rapper Snoop Dogg and the words "Snoop recommends vybemobile."
Although it may have looked like another rebellious act by street artists, it was in fact a new ad for a subsidiary of E-Plus, a provider of IT and mobile phone products and services. And the spattered dots were not real paint, but merely video images projected onto the building from across the street by employees of the advertising agency Fatcap Marketing.
This Christmas campaign for a mobile phone package is harmless compared with the amount of effort put into a campaign in Berlin for the Ogo mobile communication device at the beginning of the year. Overnight, hundreds of round cartoon monsters appeared, in the form of graffiti, on Berlin's high-rise buildings, on posters and construction site fences and, in the form of stickers, on cigarette machines and in public toilets. It wasn't until later that the operation was exposed as an advertising campaign. Robot, a Berlin agency, had been asked to draw attention to the Ogo brand in a relatively inexpensive way.
Graffiti, long the embodiment of an entire protest milieu, is increasingly being co-opted for commerce. More and more brands are donning the cloak of counterculture in their advertising, hoping to gain a young, rebellious image in the process. "We didn't want to come across as a corporation," says Robot Creative Director Lars Oehlschlaeger, who was responsible for the Ogo campaign. "Our subversive campaign, on the other hand, was young, impudent and sexy."
By hijacking this youth culture, the advertising pirates hope that its coolness will somehow be associated with their brands. The industry has long realized that it can no longer reach Generation Zapp with conventional advertising. Young people have become immune to TV ads, radio spots and Internet banner advertising. Guerilla campaigns in places frequented by urban youth, on the other hand, are more surprising. An advertising professional with the TBWA agency, for example, says that "guerilla is a popular approach, because you can surprise people when they least expect advertising."
Poaching Street Artists
If the image transfer is successful, someone who buys a pair of Converse shoes can feel rebellious, because the brand, advertised on posters plastered onto construction site fences, is being associated with bands like AC/DC and The Strokes. The cultural capital of the alternative milieu is turned into economic capital.
In an effort to come across as authentic, advertising agencies have been poaching artists from the street art scene. In 2005, German graffiti star Boris Hoppek and other artists redesigned the Park Hotel in Copenhagen and renamed it the "Hotel Fox," as advertising for the VW model of the same name. The inventors of Ogo have also gone shopping for authenticity. Two Kreuzberg graffiti artists painted the company's trademark bug-eyed little monster onto walls.
There is no end in sight. "Guerilla marketing current has a 5 to 10 percent share of the total advertising market, but demand is growing," says Thomas Patalas of the Guerilla Marketing Federation, an industry interest group. Various large corporations have already recognized the rebellious power of advertising masquerading as something else. To advertise its new 1 Series convertible, BMW distributed thousands of green stickers imprinted with the words "Sunset Blvd." Competitor SEAT responded by plastering Pariser Platz in central Berlin with giant stickers. Sporting goods manufacturers like Adidas, Puma and Nike advertise their new collections with stencil graffiti on sidewalks and walls. Even the conservative Bavarian radio network, Bayerischer Rundfunk, used so-called cleaning stencils for its advertising in Munich. The method involves placing a logo stencil on dirty walls or sidewalks and then cleaning the exposed area so that the logo then stands out against the soiled background.
The companies believe that they cannot be challenged legally for methods like stencil graffiti, because the images are eventually washed away by rain, street cleaning and pedestrian traffic. Street art campaigns cannot be treated as property damage, and are therefore not illegal, provided they are temporary. And to avoid run-ins with local authorities, advertising stickers are merely handed out to pedestrians. The clients can then claim that have no idea how the stickers end up on streetlights, railings and traffic signs. "We have full-time employees in every city who are not only familiar with the hot spots in the scene, but also know how to maneuver in a legal gray zone," admits the owner of one guerilla-marketing agency.
Fewer Spaces Available for Subculture
There is little risk to the advertisers, and only rarely do local authorities oppose the campaigns. In 2006, the city of Cologne slapped a 1,000 ($1,290) fine on rice maker Uncle Ben's after accusing the company of spraying "Monday is Rice Day" onto hundreds of walls in the city's shopping district. Uncle Ben's was also required to pay the cleaning costs. In the Ogo campaign, the US parent company, IXI Mobile, paid homeowners a usage fee for spraying graffiti and gluing posters onto their walls.
The notion that companies would one day advertise with "scribblings" could not have been foreseen when, in 1969, a messenger boy tattooed his nickname, Taki 183, onto New York City walls. Simple tags soon turned into multicolored characters. But only when the street artists began experimenting with stencil graffiti in the Pop Art style, three-dimensional wooden letter and mosaic tiles did the sprayers become the Warhols of the street.
Street art stars like British street artist Banksy became all the rage with their graffiti, which includes depictions of rats and kissing policemen. Banksy, who keeps his identity a secret to this day, is worshipped by Brad Pitt and many collectors, and his canvases sell at Sotheby's these days for hundreds of thousands of euros. The hype was what made street art so appealing to the advertising world.
But many street artists, understandably enough, see commercial use as a sellout of their art. Some of the Ogo figures were sprayed over with words like "traitor crap" and "shit." Roland Brückner, 25, a well-known German street artist, agrees that commercialization is going too far. "As a result of the crass competition with advertising, there are fewer and fewer spaces available for real artists."
The street rebels are also striking back. When the tennis brand Lacoste paid a six-figure sum in euros to 11 artists and invited them to do their work at the department store KaDeWe, the Berlin equivalent of Harrods, US street artist Brad Downey took the opportunity to criticize this notion of paid rebellion. He sprayed Lacoste-green paint onto the display windows. "No company should commission people to commit offences," Downey said after the campaign.
Lacoste excluded him from the show.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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