Foxes, Owls, and Guerrillas: Graffiti Marketing in Lisbon

Street art can add to a city in many positive ways, but what we are seeing here is mercantile vandalism. This is a large company profiting at the expense of the city and the people and businesses who populate it.

There has recently been an influx of foxes into the city. I don’t mean the cute red ones that inhabit London, I mean the poorly done stencils and stickers that have been thrown up throughout the central districts. You can also find them on posters in supermarkets and bars.

Let’s make it clear that I am an advocate of street art. It can add to a city in many positive ways, but what we are seeing here is mercantile vandalism. This is a large company profiting at the expense of the city and the people and businesses who populate it.

This plague of foxes is the latest example of guerrilla marketing to hit Lisbon. For those unfamiliar with this type of marketing, it is an attempt to target consumers in unconventional ways. It avoids traditional media channels, such as TV, radio, and publications, and instead focuses on activities in public spaces. Our public spaces. Guerrilla marketing became a marketing staple in the 1980s thanks to the book Guerrilla Marketing by Jay Conrad, and has become more and more popular for big and small businesses alike.

One of the earliest examples of graffiti as a form of marketing is attributed to The Rolling Stones’ 1974 LP It’s only Rock’ n’ Roll, and for a couple decades, graffiti advertisements were predominately used by bands, and often edgy bands at that. It was slowly picked up by other artists, including theatre acts, and eventually in the 1990s exploded into every sector, with magazines, websites, perfumes, and a whole host of other companies turning to graffiti advertisements.

One of the first suspected guerrilla campaigns seen in Lisbon this year was for Super Bock’s new Coruja beer. Walls around the city were plastered with pictures of owls — corujas in Portuguese — to push a new line of drinks. And, it looks like the foxes are doing exactly the same: advertising a drink by Sagres’ parent company, Sociedade Central de Cervejas e Bebidas (SCC), which in turn is owned by Heineken.

So, is it one or two well-placed fox murals? Or a few stickers on the bars that sell it? No, the foxes are spread across walls and shop fronts without regard to the aesthetics of the streets or the cost to small businesses that will have to remove them. It is no surprise that there are so many, with Conrad writing that there is “a surefire way to access that unconscious mind: repetition.” And that is what is happening. Companies are using something which has traditionally challenged the established order — street art — to access Lisboetas’ “unconscious mind” and sell yet another mass-produced drink.

It is easy to dismiss graffiti, with few people actively paying attention to the messages that adorn out streets, whether they be communist murals or “I still love you, Inês” scribbled on the steps of Belem train station. So, who does pay attention to graffiti? Or, to put it in marketing terms, who is the target audience?

Young people, it seems. As one marketing website puts it, street art “can help increase your establishment’s ‘hip’ factor and help to draw younger crowds that shun the ordinary and mundane.” I am in no way calling the poorly done fox stencils “art,” but it highlights the rather worrying issue of who these guerrilla campaigns for alcoholic drinks are targeting.

Almost laughably, the SCC’s own website states that they are “strongly committed to battling against the three latest and most critical problems which are affecting, above all, our youngsters: Underage Drinking…Safe Driving…Binge Drinking.” It is not just the medium that seems to be targeting the young, however, but the location as well. Many of these stencils have gone up between Santos and Cais do Sodre, and those who have spent a little time in Lisbon will know that Santos is where the young hang out. This was confirmed by the SCC when asked why they chose to run a guerrilla marketing campaign, who responded that, “As a brand that targets youngsters, [which] is totally different from competition and category standards, it is natural to avoid traditional media.”

Alas, they weren’t overly forthcoming, and when asked how the Sociedade Central de Cervejas e Bebidas justified graffiti on private and public property, they simply said that “Lisbon is full of icons, messages, and symbols.” True, but I for one would like to keep the messages on the street out of the hands of large companies. But I fear that guerrilla marketing — the mixing of fringe culture with advertisements — is something we will be seeing more of in future.

On Key

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