Topic: Business & Commercial

Sony's Unethical Advertising Innovation
(2/1/2006)

Sony Corporation's latest advertising fiasco was quite an impressive hybrid, combining the illegal, the deceptive, the offensive, the derivative, the tasteless, the disrespectful, the unsightly, and…let's see, did we miss anything? Oh, yes: it was also unethical.

What was the latest promotional trick by the creator of the Scoreboard's favorite film critic, the fictional David Manning, lover of rotten Sony movies? Phony urban graffiti, created under contract for Sony to advertise its PSPs (Play Station Portables to you videogame neophytes) in inner city New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Never mind that graffiti is the scourge of urban areas, costing cities millions in clean-up and spawning numerous citizen groups, Sony saw an opportunity to push its products to "urban nomads," in the words of a Sony spokeswoman. Sony marketing whizzes designed the stealth ads and assigned them to local artists to paint on walls, fences and the sides of buildings. This created a doubly illegal means of communication, combining the casual property damage of graffiti with the intrusive commercialism of billboards. What a concept!

The Sony ads managed to offend graffiti advocates as much as anti-graffiti crusaders, because it was very bad graffiti, depicting slickly drawn big-eyed kids of indeterminate racial origin wearing hip-hop gear and using PSPs. It was enough to give "street art" a bad name; obscenity and violent slogans pale in offensiveness to Madison Avenue's idea of "cool." Worst of all, the idea originated last year in a particularly lame episode of TV's "The Apprentice," in which the aspiring teams of future over-paid lackeys to Donald Trump were asked to design an inner city graffiti mural in Harlem that would launch Sony's then-new video game "Gran Turismo 4" for its PlayStation 2 system. Both teams whiffed on the assignment, but at least Sony had consulted the residents of the neighborhood before they started painting.

And the "Apprentice" murals also clearly mentioned the fact that they were ads for a particular Sony video game. The faux graffiti intentionally omitted mentioning either the corporation's name or the name of its product. Sneaky! But not sneaky enough. Local city street artists, who recognized the pictures for what they were, quickly covered them with unflattering comments and real graffiti. The cities slapped Sony with citations and fines for violating zoning ordinances and other laws, and it's fair to say that the sales of PSPs did not spike sufficiently for the geniuses who mounted this inherently dishonest and cynical campaign to conclude, "Well, it was worth it!"

The graffiti ads are gone now, but some fascinating questions linger. Is graffiti defined by who paints it? Does a commercial message automatically make the graffiti a billboard ad, and not graffiti, or can it be both? If real graffiti is an urban blight and property vandalism, is fake graffiti better, or worse? Is there anything that corporations won't try to commercialize?

The Scoreboard knows the answer to the last one, as do you, but the others are truly questions for the ages, to be debated and argued about by our great-grandchildren long into cold winter nights, as they play their mind-controlled video games. Meanwhile, let us hope that stealth graffiti ads join subliminal movie messages and David Manning in the trash heap of unethical advertising techniques.

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