Sony Draws Reproach Over Graffiti-Style Ads

Times Staff Writer

Graffiti and billboards are sensitive topics in this densely packed city, where municipal officials and community groups have joined forces in recent years to crack down on advertisers that had blanketed low-income neighborhoods with ads for beer, liquor and action films. The city prides itself on the hundreds of murals that decorate walls and buildings once smeared with graffiti.

In addition, Mayor John Street has waged a campaign to clean up the city, mounting programs to erase graffiti, clean up vacant lots and tow abandoned cars.

So, many in the city took offense when what appeared to be graffiti on building walls in inner-city North Philadelphia in recent weeks turned out to be what many consider even more annoying -- stealth advertising.

The caricatures depicted wide-eyed children playing with video toys. They were part of an advertising campaign by Sony Corp. for its PlayStation Portables, disguised as graffiti to appeal to the urban hip-hop generation.


Anti-graffiti activists were incensed. Graffiti aficionados were appalled. One of the three downtown ads was painted over, apparently by an anti-graffiti watchdog group that may or may not have realized it was an ad.

And last week, the city cited Sony for violating sign ordinances and ordered the company to remove the ads or the city wound take them down. Sony was warned that it faced fines for posting ads without a permit.

“They are not only illegal -- they are disrespectful to the community,” Joe Grace, the mayor’s communications director, said of the ads in an interview Friday. “We believe in removing urban blight

Grace said the city had not heard back from Sony, and public relations officials for the company did not respond to requests for comment Friday. Recently, a Sony spokeswoman told Wired magazine’s website that the ads were aimed at “urban nomads, people who are on the go constantly.”

Neither the product name nor the Sony brand is mentioned in the ads, which anti-graffiti activists say have appeared in six other cities, including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Sony hired local artists to paint in an effort to appear edgy, said Mary Tracy, director of the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, an activist group that fights against illegal outdoor advertising and graffiti in Philadelphia. Her group protested to city officials.

“It’s appalling,” Tracy said. “Sony seems to have a sense of entitlement -- that they can festoon our neighborhoods with their branding anywhere they want.”

Six weeks ago, Tracy said, her group complained to the city about GoPoster, a “guerrilla” advertising company from New York that had plastered stores, fences and abandoned buildings with two dozen small billboards. The city cited the company and a judge ordered the billboards torn down.

But in some ways, Tracy said, the Sony ads are even more offensive because they combine the twin scourges of illegal advertising and graffiti. Beyond that, she said, the ads are crude and simplistic.

Grace, the mayor’s spokesman, said neither Sony nor the owners of properties where the ads appeared had sought or received required licensing and zoning approval. He said the city had cited one building owner who was paid by Sony for ad space. Any fines would be determined by a court, he said.

Jake Dobkin, a former graffiti artist in New York, said dozens of similar Sony ads had appeared in SoHo and other Manhattan neighborhoods. In an interview Friday, he called Sony’s attempts at urban graffiti “fake and inauthentic.”

“It’s not even very creative,” Dobkin said. “They should be fined.”

Dobkin described the ads as a pale imitation of actual graffiti -- the misguided attempts of ad executives struggling to recreate the graffiti tags of hip street kids.

In a commentary on his website, the Gothamist, Dobkin called Sony’s ads exploitive, deceptive and illegal.

“Appropriating the authenticity of street art to promote a product is totally lame,” he wrote. “Some marketing agencies might try to position these campaigns as ‘cool’ or ‘real’ or whatever, but don’t believe them, Mr. Major Corporate Executive. The 24- to 36-year-old demographic you covet so much knows the difference, and we are not fooled.”

Dobkin and Tracy said the ads had triggered backlashes in New York and other cities.

On his website, Dobkin has posted photos of defaced Sony ads in New York. One of the photos shows an ad partially covered by a bumper sticker that reads: “Corporate vandals not welcome.”

Other Sony ads have been marked with messages: “Stop hawking corporate products and big business on our neighborhood walls” and “This is why Amerikkka is so ... fat.”

And a few of the ads have been defaced with plain old urban graffiti.