December 28th, 2005

Sony Ads Draw Public Ire

By Jennifer Lin
Philadelphia Inquirer

Sony Corp. thinks its new ad campaign for the PlayStation Portable is a hip, edgy homage to graffiti art.

Anti-blight advocates in the city call it something else - illegal and arrogant.

All the fuss is over graffiti-inspired caricatures of bug-eyed youths with PlayStation Portables stenciled on walls with spray paint.

The ads, which make no reference to Sony, have cropped up in seven cities, including two spots along Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia.

But as soon as the paint dried, bloggers in New York slammed the electronics giant for its faux street art, while critics in San Francisco defaced images with red paint and rude commentary.

Sony has conceded that the graffiti ads are not spontaneous art, but contrived marketing for the handheld games.

That annoys Mary Tracy, a local watchdog against illegal billboards through her group, SCRUB - the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight.

“It’s not mural art,” Tracy said. “This is someone trying to sell a product. This is commercialism. You have a multi-conglomerate operation coming into the city and breaking our laws.”

She added that if it is art, why not put it everywhere?

“They’re not putting this on walls in Gladwyne or Ardmore,” Tracy said. “These are poor neighborhoods. The whole notion that ‘if it’s urban, it’s OK’ is very arrogant and very disrespectful.”

Philadelphia has strict billboard regulations. Companies have to get a permit from the city’s Licenses and Inspections Department before putting up an advertisement.

Sony did not get permission ahead of time for its graffiti ads, the L&I office confirmed yesterday.

L&I intended to issue a violation to the property owner and inform Sony that such advertising required a permit, said a department official who asked not to be identified.

‘Urban nomads’

Calls to Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. headquarters in Foster City, Calif., were not answered. But Sony spokeswoman Molly Smith has told other publications that the company paid for space and was not vandalizing property.

She told the online Web site for Wired magazine that Sony was trying to appeal to “urban nomads, people who are on the go constantly.”

The devices allow people to play games, surf the Internet and watch movies.

Fred Wolfson, for one, likes the ads. He owns the commercial building near Eighth Street on Girard Avenue with the Sony graffiti. He said Sony had approached him about spray-painting the images and was paying him an undisclosed sum to keep the ad for a month.

Wolfson, who runs a truck rental business, called the figures “great.”

“It’s an interesting little wall mural,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

A few blocks west, at 16th Street and Girard, another Sony mural was later covered with paint.

Charlotte Walker, who lives around the corner, thought the characters were “cute.” “I never knew it was Sony,” she said. “It was neat.”

In the wall ads, the characters use the PlayStation devices in unconventional ways - riding them like a skateboard or mechanical bull, or using them like a paddleboard or puppet.

Sony’s advertising agency created the images and hired graffiti artists in select cities to replicate them on buildings.

Miffed in Manhattan

Jake Dobkin, copublisher of the Gothamist Web site, considers himself a street-art aficionado. He said the Sony campaign hit his SoHo neighborhood in Manhattan a few weeks ago with not only “dozens” of spray-painted murals but “hundreds” of posters of the same cutesy youths.

He took aim at Sony for trying to dupe people like him. “It’s clearly a large campaign, and deserves a thoughtful, measured response,” he wrote on his blog. “Here’s mine: corporate graffiti sucks.”

“What really got them in trouble with this one was the campaign was unmarked,” Dobkin said in an interview. “It seemed deceptive - trying to sneak it by people, make them think it was graffiti and then realize it wasn’t.”

Phil Goldsmith, Philadelphia’s managing director until last spring, said he believed Sony condoned graffiti, “which this city has spent a lot of time and money trying to eradicate.”

More than any other city in the country, Philadelphia has successfully fought graffiti by promoting the more positive alternative of mural art.

“Sony,” he added, “should forget the advertising and donate its money to the Mural Arts Program.”

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