Ad Report Card

Nissan’s Game of Tag

Why is the car company spraying graffiti on its own ads?

Last month, in cities around the country, someone slathered graffiti all over a series of street posters advertising the Nissan Altima. The car image was partially obscured by newer-looking images of a turntable, or a microphone, and a Web address:

The culprit? Nissan itself.—where a note offers “much respect to Nissan for allowing us to use their billboards”—is actually a promotional site for the carmaker, albeit one with a consciously “street” or “urban” design sensibility. You can see the posters at a site called Wooster Collective, which documents and comments on street art from around the world (and isn’t affiliated with Nissan).

Subtle, stealthy marketing is popular among some advertisers right now, on the theory that young, trendy influentials are best pitched on the sly—they tune out traditional advertising, so you have to sneak up on them. This trend feeds the ongoing backlash that inspires culture-jammers to blot out marketing messages, and now the cycle of subculture co-opting crosses a new boundary: a company pretending to deface its own advertisement, with another advertisement.

Graffiti and corporate branding actually have some things in common, a theme to be explored in the forthcoming book EGO 2—Identity Standards Manual, which I hope to revisit in a future column. One precedent for Nissan’s strategy mentioned at the Wooster Collective site is a beer campaign in the Netherlands involving aggressive stickering that at times covered up genuine graffiti. And New York’s School of Visual Arts has used a fake-graffitied subway poster.

There’s more to the Nissan effort. This press release explains that the “ElectroMOYO MC” is a Sypher1, “a young, African-American woman who represents the ideals of freedom, access and respect” and who is currently traveling across the country in an elaborately tricked-out Altima, appearing at various events, and so on. A related radio campaign is built around recordings that Sypher1 is making along the way, “broadcasts” presented as though they are interrupting a real radio ad. At the site, you can sign up to receive “product news” e-mails and read all about “the kultcha of Electric Moyo.” (“Not only is the new music, art and poetry we’re crafting art, it’s legit, it’s live and it’s real.”)

Stealthiness notwithstanding, Jon Cropper, who is Nissan’s senior manager for youth and urban communications, was happy to talk about the campaign. The company “interviewed several hundred candidates for the job” before selecting Sypher1, a Los Angeles-based poet, as the voice of Electric Moyo. Electric Moyo is a moniker “we came up with,” and refers to a “philosophy” meant to “inject positivity and optimism into culture.” And indeed the text on the site (a “collaboration” between Sypher1 and Nissan marketers) reflects this sentiment. In Cropper’s view, there’s something surprising and cool in a big company like Nissan embracing an edgy subculture, and he added that this strategy specifically responds to the “gray energy” currently drabbing up American culture at a time of distrust and deceit (he mentions everything from corporate greed to Sammy Sosa’s bat-corking to the Jayson Blair scandal). “Trust,” he said, “has been diminished on so many levels.”

This seems like a fairly extraordinary thing to say: We’ll fight the diminution of trust by way of … faked car ads?

For what it’s worth, comments posted at the Wooster Collective site have tended to be unsupportive. “I hate these ads,” one person wrote; Nissan is “sneaking into a club they have no fucking right to join, and taking up more space with more blah blah buy buy blah blah. It’s sneaky and rude.” Another complained, “Nissan is cashing in this worldwide movement we call street art, they are using our aesthetics to sell us their products.” A third person pointed out that Nissan is using a tactic that formed “for reasons outside/in opposition to the de-personalized consumer world that we are presented with in the city.”

Cropper argues that while all this is one response to the campaign, there are others who see it differently. Sure, he concedes, the effort is about selling cars. But selling cars is really just “a back door,” to a deeper message of freedom and positivity and so on: This is a campaign built on poetry, not ad copy. “We just want to be a brand … ” He pauses, either to look for the words or just to measure the ones he’s chosen carefully. ” … that has a soul.”

Thanks to Christopher Rubino for pointing out the SVA poster.