What Looks Like Graffiti Could Really Be an Ad

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

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.

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