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Crusading anarchists are the usual suspects when it comes to sidewalk graffiti. “A16: No More Bank” and “No More Prisons” stencils are as familiar as cracks on city walkways. But in Dupont Circle, a new kind of message has been assaulting the eyes of shoe-gazing pedestrians: In red, the words “Every city has its secrets” stare up from corners along 19th Street NW and elsewhere in the neighborhood. Though the insight may seem like the musings of a 16-year-old hooligan, the slogan in fact belongs to HBO’s new show Rome.
An HBO spokesperson confirms that the sidewalk ad campaign is linked to the show, but refers questions to GoGORILLA Media, a New York–based company that specializes in a technique known as “guerilla marketing.”
Over the past decade or so, corporate marketing has entered something of a crisis period. Its very success at blanketing the world with advertising has left consumers largely inured to those advertisements. In short, the consumer—who now sees hundreds, if not thousands, of ads per day—is overloaded and barely registers more than a few of them. So to emerge from the jungle of images, advertisers have turned to guerilla marketers. These specialists search for the remaining unsponsored territory in the modern consumer’s world, whether it’s public property or not.
Heather Corrigan, who manages HBO’s account at GoGORILLA, confirms that her company is “street-stenciling” the Rome slogan around the city. The strategy is seductive to executives used to shelling out millions on advertising campaigns: Why pay for private space in a magazine or on a billboard when you can have heavily traveled public space for free?
And GoGORILLA doesn’t want just any free space. A brochure from the firm refers to street corners in major cities as “the non plus ultra of advertising real estate.” And when spray-painting such golden concrete, the guerilla group explains, it’s best to use “[n]on-permanent paint, so as not to incur the wrath of city officials.” Asked whether what her company does is legal, Corrigan says, “Legal? No, it’s not legal. This is guerrilla marketing.”
Bill Rice, spokesperson for the District Department of Transportation, which regulates public spaces such as sidewalks, concurs with Corrigan’s judgment: “It’s illegal,” he says.
Corrigan says her company employs such tactics in cities all over the country but has never had a problem with municipal governments. Nor has it been criticized for what it does. “We’ve been in business over 11 years, and no one’s ever written anything [critical],” she says.
And there’s more than one way to corporatize the commons: Corrigan says her company offers another guerilla tactic known as the “lost-dog poster.” A flier describing something missing is taped to a lamppost. To claim the reward, you rip off a square of paper with a phone number on it and call. Instead of reaching a worried dog or ring owner, you get a voice mail advertising Rome. “It literally mimics a lost-dog poster,” says Corrigan.
A GoGORILLA brochure explains that the “lost-dog” fliers are a “homespun format [that] co-opts public space and gets under consumers’ radar with a cleverly, non-commercial format.” But maybe too clever: Dupont resident Robert Halligan saw Rome’s flier on a lamppost—it includes the slogan—but didn’t call. “It was too cryptic,” he says, “and looked like something for stoners.”
Andy Strickman, co-owner of Ammo Marketing, a San Francisco–based firm that does guerrilla and word-of-mouth advertising, calls GoGORILLA’s over-the-top tactics “flaunting.” Ammo hasn’t done much in D.C. lately, he says, and his firm no longer takes on the fleeting type of campaigns associated with sidewalk graffiti.
“We tend to operate inside the law,” Strickman says, “but sometimes we look for gray areas.” When you’ve discussed and permitted your campaign with the city, he says, “it makes it easier when the cops come around asking questions.” Still, he says, it’s tough to make a corporate collar: “It’s really hard to go after the big corporations when you can’t identify who did it at first.”
Rice agrees: “You’d have to catch them actually doing it.” And if the perp cops to it? “That would be something we’d turn over to enforcement.…It could involve” D.C. police.
Michelle Taglieri, director of marketing for the New York-based Universal Buzz Intelligence, says her company does street stenciling and other street advertising “all the time” and has several clients working in the D.C. area, particularly in Georgetown and Clarendon. To avoid legal complications, she says, her company uses a chalk spray that lasts only three or four days. Corrigan says GoGORILLA’s spray lasts about three weeks.
At least one Dupont group plans to take the corporation on. Gil Hill, 70, a 19th Street resident and a member of the Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets board, says he plans to address HBO’s tactics in his upcoming Dupont Graffiti Control Program. “I’m speechless that somebody like HBO would do something so irresponsible,” he says.
Another Dupont resident, taking a break after walking her West Highland white terrier over the Rome pitch, expresses outrage at the sidewalk ads. “I think that’s just horrible that they would co-opt public space like that,” she says. “Unless, of course, they want to pay for the sidewalk.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Max Kormell.