Was nothing sacred? Had Banksy slipped into a Fjellse bed with Ikea? As we stood at the entrance of the Ventura Lambrate subway station during the recent Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, I interrupted my eye roll at the rough black-and-white pasted figures on the granite walls with the realization this was probably just another mainstreaming of street art.
This was simply advertising, paid for and pasted up by the Swedish behemoth.
An outbreak of co-opted street art-inspired advertising by some of the biggest brands on the planet has popped up in public spaces worldwide in the last decade, transforming this once subversive form of protest and expression into something as commercially novel at this point as, well, another pop-up shop.
Everyone is doing it, and by everyone I mean mega organizations with deep pockets enlisting some of the biggest ad firms to give them street cred—monoliths such as Nike, Lee Jeans, Absolut…even UNICEF. Heck, Nike, Microsoft, Pizza Hut, Unilever and ad giant Saatchi & Saatchi are among the brands that have sought the services of a UK boutique firm (or is it really?) called Street Advertising Services. And let’s not forget in my neck of the planet, Shepard Fairey, whose Studio One campaigns count Coca Cola, Radio Shack, Dewars, Honda and many others.
Going back some seven years, Bronx graffiti artist Cope2 was hired by Time magazine, no less, to paint the side of a building in the colorful telltale markings of Krylon and posing the question as to whether it was art or vandalism. Hey, if someone’s going to profit from this aesthetic, it might as well be the cats who themselves prowled the night (and continue to do so) slinging up their statements in the face of the law or decency. Graffiti historians like to point out, by the way, their art form dates back to prehistoric dissenters scratching on cave walls.
The group of hipster-looking protestors congregating at a busy traffic circle and wielding hand-scrawled signs were not railing against the threat of a tax hike, like so much of the graffiti we saw around Milan during the week. Instead, they had gathered to shout about color—as in the palette range in the Metropolitan collection of Ivas Paint, an Italian institution since 1953.
We spotted other examples of guerrilla marketing as we zig zagged a city invaded by 330,000 visitors also there for this furniture super fair. Maybe it had something to do with us staying in a flat we found on Air BnB that was owned by an advertising creative director that my focus was especially tuned in to the way brands were marketing themselves during a week crammed with so much noise.
Admittedly, Ikea’s efforts worked since I stopped (and more than once) to survey it. The Swedish mega chain didn’t tap Banksy, of course, but a hired crew of paste pros to blanket subway walls and even their own ads with these images. In another part of Milan known as Tortona that week, Ikea positioned a branded porta-potty. Enter and there was no grotty toilet but a 20×20 space fitted with the retailer’s bathroom-ready counters and accessories.
Guerrilla marketing appears to be Ikea’s increasing M.O. Earlier this year, the company went “underground” by erecting all the comforts of home in the Paris Metro. And in 2009, it enraged Canadians when it graffitied some 400 bright yellow stenciled ads on sidewalks and building walls—without permission. Ikea apologized, conceding the national campaign was not thoughtfully executed.
Memory at Ikea HQ seems to be as fleeting as the construction of their furnishings, given their assault on the street walls of Milan. Was it effective, however? Well, I’m here giving space and time to their efforts and you’ve gotten this far in my coverage. So, perhaps, the Fonz lives another day for his big hop over Jaws… (Folks, it was that desperate moment in “Happy Days” that the death of a once-golden series spawned a new catchphrase in television and, subsequently, advertising and marketing.)
The rub for me, however is that while the individual street artist can be heavily fined and jailed for defacing property, the big companies who have appropriated their medium get tax breaks to open yet another big box store.
The most subversive consideration of all? Ikea’s campaign is a touché of sorts to an opponent worth his weight in internationally embraced notoriety: superstar Banksy hit the South London town of Croydon in 2009 with a send-up on the mass design store featuring a mohawked punk staring at instructions for assembling a “large graffiti slogan” contained in a box stamped “IEAK.” Quintessential Banksy, priceless in message and medium.
For this design fan, however, the best piece of graffiti was on a stone wall in another neighborhood hosting endless showrooms filled with the latest modern lighting, furniture and stuff. In slapdash black scrawl was the declaration: “Design Ruins Our Life.”
An ironic statement brought to consumers by the author? Now that’s a novel idea.
All photos taken by RA with a Pentax K-01 by Marc Newson. Photo of Banksy sighting by Romanywg.
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