Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"The Message" and the Merchants

Strange times are approaching for those of you who find yourself in a mall looking for a replacement pair of flip flops. It's July, and the fall 'hard sell' of back to school is upon us. Of course, advertising (and graffiti) are not exclusive to Ottawa, but the use of graffiti in advertising got me thinking about how well advertising firms typically are at reading ideology and managing it.

The Gap, for example, is using graffiti this year to market to boys aged 1-5.

What the Gap is doing here is marketing to parents with the idea of the 1980s and graffiti without incorporating any actual graffiti. Skull shirts on a toddler is just plain ironic, and merging the idea of menace, boys and shopping is presented without much protest in malls across North America. (if you are wondering about the girls, they get sold on the idea of 'modern dance'). It's amazing how The Message has changed since the late 1970s, a time before malls and mass advertising the way we experience it today.

Of course, The Gap is not the first corporation to capitalize on the idea of graffiti to market their goods.

Coke makes train graffiti look like a fun afternoon art project in this little ad that aired in Europe:

Pfizer pulls on your heart strings like a ninja:

[Funny enough, Pfizer is routinely in trouble with the law, being found guilty of felonies such as defrauding patients , medicaid in addition to a whole slew of fatal social harms. Hardly child's play. I digress....]

Graffiti, the idea of it, is CLEARLY a global phenomena.  It is used to sell products to dads and moms who shop at the mall, people who drink coke and use pharmaceuticals. That is a LOT of people. And the message in ALL of these ads is this: It is cool. It is youthful. It is global. It's edgy. Why, mom even overlooked the death defying hanging the son would have had to do to get those flowers up in the alley. I think she meant to mouth "big ups" not "thank you"...

These ads touch on the tensions around defining graffiti. The absence of tags in the children's store window suggests that while the idea of 80s graffiti feels like nostalgic 'fun', there is an edgy element that makes it hard to acknowledge completely. Pfizer is careful to make sure the intent of its graffiti is for a sick sister. The coke video certainly went viral because of the nostalgic fantasy and a PG version of  the thrill of playing with trains (note: wearing your headphones around train tracks is best left in the realm of fantasy).

Advertising firms do some of the best research out there on what ideas 'speak' to the masses. Clearly, graffiti has many meanings for many people, and it is not always a negative sentiment. I am not implying that advertising firms should direct moral order. I am merely pointing out that they do reflect some things that are meaningful to many. It is something to keep in mind when someone claims that 'nobody likes graffiti'. 

Clearly this is not the case. To make an argument based on this while you drink Coke and shop at the Gap is clearly something worth being more reflexive about. 

NOTE: I will be writing almost exclusively over the next month about Ottawa in particular as the events around House of PainT start ramping up. Look it up. Come out and see what's going on. See you around!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Kris ( who directed me to Gillette's ads (see here:

    Kris also maintains a great blog on Montreal Graff at