Seeking to market its handheld game device to hip city dwellers, Sony has hired graffiti artists in major urban areas to spray-paint buildings with simple, totemic images of kids playing with the gadget. But the guerrilla marketing gambit appears to be drawing scorn from some of the street-savvy hipsters it's striving to win over.
Coming on the heels of widely publicized news that Sony music CDs infected customers' computers with security-hole-inducing spyware, the campaign for the PlayStation Portable is being derided on the internet as an attempt to buy the credibility of street art.
In San Francisco, critics have expressed their disapproval by adding some spray paint of their own to the Sony ads. On a wall outside a beer garden in San Francisco's bohemian Mission District that caters to motorcyclists and bike messengers, someone spray-painted over every character, adding the commentary, "Advertising directed at your counter-culture."
Outside Casa Maria, a small Mission bodega, someone wrote, "Get out of my city," added the word "Fony" to the graffiti and penned a four-line ditty slamming Sony.
Other cities targeted in the campaign include New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Miami, according to Sony spokeswoman Molly Smith.
The advertising, based on original artwork commissioned by Sony's ad agency, features a collection of dizzy-eyed urban kids playing with the PSP as if it were a skateboard, a paddle or a rocking horse, but doesn't include the word Sony or PSP anywhere.
When asked about the criticism, Smith countered that art is subjective and that both the content and the medium dovetailed with Sony's belief that the PSP is a "disrupter product" that lets people play games, surf the internet and watch movies wherever they want.
"With PSP being a portable product, our target is what we consider to be urban nomads, people who are on the go constantly," Smith said.
Floyd Hayes, the head creative director at Cunning Work, which specializes in nontraditional marketing campaigns such as promoting a Sci-Fi Channel TV show about the Bermuda triangle through reward signs for a missing sock, doesn't disapprove of the campaign, though he thinks the seemingly hypnotized kids in the artwork might send the wrong message about the PSP's thrill factor.
But Hayes doesn't think Sony has crossed any lines with the faux street art. "Sony and PSP have every right to use this type of media," Hayes said. "They have done it for (a) very long time very successfully and spoke the language of the streets without being patronizing."
Piers Fawkes, who runs the IF blog that focuses on new currents in marketing, also liked the campaign.
"It's a cheeky wink toward a savvy audience who are already familiar with the product," Fawkes said. "It's reflective of modern approach to marketing. The creative classes are sick of marketing when done badly or blandly, but when it's done in (an) intelligent manner, we appreciate it."
Fawkes questioned whether the backlash was very widespread.
"I wonder if that's a San Francisco phenomenon," Fawkes said. "I know there's certain mindset there."
Sony isn't the first corporation to use graffiti and stencils to market its products. In 2001, IBM paid Chicago and San Francisco more than $120,000 in fines and clean-up costs after its advertising agency spray-painted Linux advertisements on the cities' sidewalks.
Unlike IBM, however, Sony says it's paying businesses and building owners for the right to graffiti their walls.
Casa Maria was paid $100 for two weeks' use of its wall, according to co-owner Mario Arana.