Two blocks from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco, the epicenter of the 1960s counterculture, two emblems are spray-painted on the sidewalk that couldn’t better represent the ideals of that era: a heart and a peace sign. The third icon in the set, however, doesn’t exactly match: It’s a penguin, symbol of the computer operating system Linux. That penguin, “Tux,” is the only indication that this street graffiti is actually a corporate advertisement — part of a multi-million-dollar IBM ad campaign dubbed “Peace, Love, Linux.”
Big Blue launched the campaign in April to promote sales of computers that come pre-installed with Linux. The company slapped the icons on billboards around the country, and stenciled tags on the sidewalks of Boston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. IBM has since killed that prong of the campaign, after irate officials in San Francisco denounced the ads as vandalism, and in Chicago fined the company several thousand dollars for defacing public property. But the ads lasted long enough to mark another step forward in corporate advertisers’ efforts to integrate commercial messages into public spaces — a push increasingly assisted with guerilla communication techniques pioneered by activists and graffiti artists.
IBM realized some years ago that Americans had come to regard it as a lumbering dinosaur in a field increasingly dominated by younger, flashier tech companies. Selling servers pre-installed with Linux, the popular open-source operating system, was supposed to help bury that image. Linux represented the freewheeling spirit of the digital revolution that IBM had been missing: While Big Blue fiercely guarded its own products, Linux’s code is open and available for every progammer around the world to inspect and tinker with.
Culture critic Thomas Frank, whose book The Conquest of Cool chronicles how businesses have appropriated countercultural images, says that by manufacturing a connection between peace, love, and Linux, IBM — the archetypal conformist company — hopes to acquire a sense of coolness, subversiveness, and revolution, thereby bumping up sales among the iconoclastic digerati. Big Blue has followed up “Peace, Love and Linux” with a new series of advertisements in which two out-of-touch programmers in retro-sci fi space suits — perhaps symbolizing the clunky IBM of old — finally get hip to the burgeoning information revolution.
To match its pitch about a revolution in products, Big Blue looked to a revolutionary advertising medium. And what better way to draw jaded consumers than to come in literally at ground level? Graffiti “has that aesthetic of being an underground, grassroots movement, so that people don’t associate it with the big corporation that it’s coming from,” says Dr. Aurora Wallace, a New York University instructor who studies privatization of public spaces. “All the traditional (ad) spaces are understood to be somewhat suspect,” she adds. “Billboards can’t capture people’s imagination like they used to.”
IBM’s approach is not unique. Music and movie producers have also used sidewalk graffiti for promotion in recent years, says Carrie McLaren, the editor/producer of Stay Free!, a New York-based anti-commercial magazine. In 1999, Reebok laid down several hundred cryptic graffiti advertisements on the streets of Manhattan, until the city demanded that they be removed.
In their book Under the Radar: Talking to Today’s Cynical Consumer, Jonathan Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum, founders of the agency Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, extolled their success using stencil ads painted on the street outside a women’s wear convention to promote a lingerie company called Bamboo. “The street stencils caught the eyes of the members of the press who were attending the convention and spurred different publications to write about Bamboo’s ads all over the world,” Bond and Kirshenbaum write. “By the time consumers realized that this street stencil was an ad, it was already through their radar.”
The descent of commercials onto the sidewalks is only the latest symptom of what critics call “ad creep,” the seepage of advertising into spaces that used to be relatively free from marketing messages. In recent years supermarket floors, the exterior walls of buildings, the names of sports stadia and subway stations, and even bathrooms have all begun sporting advertising slogans. “The more these spaces are taken over by people like IBM, the less we can even call it public space,” says Wallace. Advertising on sidewalks, says Stay Free!’s McLaren, are “another boundary that’s being crossed.”
IBM’s ads also frustrate those who use sidewalks to spread their own, decidedly non-commercial statements. A few years ago, graffiti activist Billy Wimsatt launched a campaign encouraging activists to paint “No More Prisons” on public sidewalks. The idea spread, and by now anonymous participants have stenciled the phrase in over 20 cities, he says. “I would love to see the sidewalk used as a public political forum — for all kinds of political and artistic and personal and social statements,” Wimsatt says. “My nightmare was that it would be used by corporations to sell their shit. As soon as IBM and people like that start adopting those same strategies, it necessarily means that the other people with messages will simply get drowned out.”
Yet the same quality that makes graffiti ads appealing to IBM — their association with the counterculture and disrespect for authority — can also work against the marketers’ intent. IBM’s sidewalk ad on Haight Street in San Francisco now bears a big, bright, blue line through it. But whoever crossed out the penguin didn’t do the same to the “Protect the Bay” or “No More Prisons” tags written within a block of the IBM ad.