Graffiti is many things to many people. For some, it's nothing more than a blot on a landscape that should be removed immediately. For street artists, it's a genuine visual medium, which can be both beautiful and innovative.
Increasingly to advertisers, however, graffiti is yet another way to sell products: one that's cheap, almost unavoidable and guaranteed to provoke a response. Advertisers have found the promotions mother lode. The rise of commercial graffiti, stickers, flyposters and any other object that can be slapped onto a public place seems to be inexorable, and is used to sell everything from cars to booze.
Indeed, the demand for alternative forms of advertising in this vein has led to a whole new category of agency, such as the US-based Alt Terrain, which specialises in alternative media and guerrilla marketing. Alt Terrain has a purely creative mission: not exactly an ad agency, a PR company or a marketing firm, but working with all those entities to implement new approaches to advertising. "We preach that just about every mainstream campaign can have a worthwhile street culture, street art or guerrilla marketing component," says CEO Adam Salacuse. "If Disney can do it right, anyone can! - with our assistance."
Salacuse believes the reliance on such campaigns in advertising is inevitable. "Street art prominence has grown to the point where it is a solid part of youth culture," he says. "And anything that is a popular component of youth culture will eventually be integrated into advertising campaigns that aim to attract young adults." One of Alt Terrain's specialities is legal graffiti: using genuine street artists to spray- paint billboards and hoardings onto leased wall space. These might be straightforward representations of existing ads, or they can be custom designs, integrated more carefully with the space available to create a unique image. Similarly, according to the client's whims, the art styles used can range from neat, tidy and bland to a wilder, more grassroots approach.
Alt Terrain's client list is surprisingly corporate, featuring the likes of Disney, Microsoft, EA and MasterCard. Smaller brands, or a company wanting to be perceived as somewhat more edgy, can opt for guerrilla marketing. "That's a whole different thing," says Salacuse. "Guerrilla marketing, in our opinion, is the act of hitting the street with media or marketing that is not 100 per cent permitted by the city." In other words, advertisers can be daring enough to deploy fly-posting, sticker campaigns, pavement chalking, decals and all the other decorations that councils then spend a fortunes trying to remove.
So why would any law-abiding company splash around in such murky legal waters? In a word, flexibility. "Guerrilla marketing is popular because it opens more options for advertising agency creatives to connect with and engage consumers," explains Salacuse. "Creative concepts no longer have to be bound by billboards, magazine pages or the 30-second TV spot."
Guerrilla marketing also hits people where they live. But it's a fine line between getting the message out there and irritating people with endlessly repeated logos wherever they look. "The trick is to ensure that it is done in a relevant, non-intrusive and entertaining manner," Salacuse admits.
He also stresses the importance of educating clients: street art is a style in itself, and conventional ad designs may look incongruous if not appropriately customised or rendered. "If a brand wants to tap into street art culture," he says, "it should work with credible street artists and create a concept that integrates both corporate and original ideas from the artist. Who better to contribute to a campaign than them?"
Most of Alt Terrain's work, in whatever medium and whether strictly legal or not, is clearly designed to be an ad. The 16,000 static-cling Microsoft MSN butterflies that it plastered around Manhattan for 24 hours in October 2002 may not have had any obvious selling points, but they were nevertheless a recognised corporate logo. It's when an ad attempts to be something else that it becomes more subversive - or dishonest, depending on your point of view.
In 2003, Nissan launched a street poster advertising campaign for its Altima model. Mysteriously, no sooner had the posters appeared than they would be slathered with apparent graffiti depicting a turntable, mic or other music-related gear, and the web address ElectricMoyo.com.
The site appeared to be a promo for a young MC called Sypher1, who was travelling the country in a customised Altima doing gigs. It offered viewers the chance to get product news, emails and info about "the kultcha of Electric Moyo," while adding: "Much respect to Nissan for allowing us to use their billboards."
Genuine street artists were instantly suspicious. The so-called graffiti was obviously too clean and pasted-on to be genuine, and it soon became clear that the ads had been modified by Nissan itself. The company had interviewed numerous candidates for the job of ElectricMoyo MC and had eventually settled on Sypher1 - a real-life poet based in Los Angeles. The term 'Electric Moyo' was simply made up, as was the text on the site, created by Nissan marketing folk and Sypher1 herself.
If the idea was to embrace youth culture and provide an edgier alternative to conventional advertising, the execution backfired disastrously. Most artists involved with genuine street art found it patronising and underhanded. Comments on Wooster Collective , a site dedicated to celebrating street art, ranged from mildly irritated to vitriolic. One artist wrote: "They're sneaking into a club they have no right to join, and taking up more space with more 'blah blah buy buy blah blah'. It's sneaky and rude."
Another street artist wrote: "The reason I got into street art is because it was kids from every country in the world getting off their asses and doing something to make their cities a more beautiful place to live in. This kind of marketing campaign has nothing to do with creativity, and a lot to do with greed and consumerism."
The street fights back
Nissan's campaign may be notable for achieving the exact opposite of what was intended, but it wasn't the first (and certainly wasn't the last) to use fake graffiti. A few months previously, stickers depicting a snake tongue and sometimes a web address had begun to appear in five cities around the Netherlands. The campaign was aggressive, with stickers and posters sometimes pasted on top of real graffiti. Other posters followed with the same mysterious theme, gradually revealing a story.
It was the work of Odd, a London-based design consultancy commissioned by Heineken to launch a new tequila-flavoured beer. The campaign's storyline involved the death of a fictitious Mexican wrestler called The Lizard and the cult that had grown up around him, advocating partying (and presumably a lot of beer drinking) late into the night. The campaign even went so far as to include a subtle end-frame graphic on an existing TV commercial to give the impression of an on-air hijacking.
Such convoluted teaser campaigns aren't unusual on television or in print, but genuine street artists are notoriously wary of anything corporate - and will often retaliate. This is exactly what happened when Saatchi & Saatchi launched a graffiti campaign last year as part of a £20 million drive for the Brazilian drinks brand Sagatiba. This time, mysterious stencilled images began appearing on walls in the trendier parts of London. The figure, in T-shirt and jeans, looked remarkably like the statue of Christ that overlooks Rio de Janeiro.
Initially the undeniably impressive artwork was greeted with admiration, until a documentary entitled Inside Saatchi & Saatchi appeared on BBC TV. There, the whole process behind pitching and executing the campaign was revealed - and street artists weren't happy. Some artists even vowed to take action against the perceived invaders, and many of the stencilled figures were defaced, papered over or torn down.
One of the campaign's strongest critics was D*Face, a street artist and curator of the Outside Institute gallery. "It just doesn't work. There's no logical connection," he says. "In many cases, it's not so much the execution of the idea, just the application and lack of original thinking. There are so many possible ways of using the street to display work. By going directly for a stencil, it can only mean that they are just riding on the back of the artists that have put the time, energy and risk in to display their work using this method, purely for that brand to be seen as being 'of the moment'."
D*Face also points out the inherent problem with creating non-obvious street campaigns: "The best examples are the ones that you have no idea who it's for - and these are the ones that also fail the brand. Maybe they raise awareness in the long term, maybe they don't. But that's no reason not to come up with new and original ways to reach this audience."
Using street art to sell a product effectively is, it seems, a much trickier proposition than it might appear. A good campaign has to be subtle, but not so subtle as to be totally unrecognisable as a product. It has to appeal to street artists while not annoying the general public, who may well see it as yet more graffiti. Most of all, it has to be executed convincingly, preferably by genuine street artists who aren't tied to a fixed corporate vision.
Of course, principles such as forming a genuine understanding of your audience are crucial tenets of all effective advertising. As expertise in this medium matures, expect to see some fantastic designs popping up on a wall near you soon.