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Advertising murals: a dangerous disguise

A bit of context. As part of its advertising actions, Bancolombia decided to paint advertising murals in Medellín and other cities; something increasingly common among brands and companies. So far, nothing out of the ordinary, except for the questionable decision to do it in the capital of Antioquia on a mural by the well-known Cali artist K2man. A significant and impacting work that, as she commented on her Instagram account, had a great personal value for her. In addition, the original mural was part of one of the past editions of one of the most important urban art festivals in the country: Pictopía. Beyond the responsibility that could fall on the company for its actions and the inappropriateness of the intervention, it is worth taking this unfortunate opportunity to reflect on the tense (and not always harmless) relationship between advertising and muralism. A subject we have already dealt with in this blog but this time it deserves another perspective and audience: the marketing departments of companies and advertising agencies in the country. Indeed, and taking into account what happened, we suggest that it is time to consider and rethink advertising activities involving murals in public space for one fundamental reason: it is a business with many risks and waste. Here are five considerations.


The legal risks

Unfortunately, many of the advertising campaigns that rely on murals and the talent of graffiti artists are just a paint disguise for a billboard. Although there are some regulations that allow a certain percentage per "work" of commercial messages, it would not be difficult for an official in charge of protecting the environment of the city, to reach a conclusion: from its conception and execution, its graphic construction and message, are murals that have 100% commercial content. The billboard disguised as a mural, in a light and somewhat cunning way, avoids paying the corresponding charges and obtaining the necessary permits by claiming its condition of "artistic work”. Which by its purpose and nature are part of the exception in terms of the limits of outdoor visual advertising (a particular form of pollution). In other words, many brands and companies pollute our cities with impunity, taking advantage of a regulation that is not entirely clear. In any case, and as can be concluded without having deep legal knowledge, there is an imminent legal risk. It would be enough for the Environmental Secretaries of each city to carefully review each one of the advertising murals to find that in some cases the law is being contravened. It does not seem very strategic to sell a problem to a client that could lead to fines and sanctions.

Latent reputational damage

It is undeniable that graffiti and mural culture is becoming increasingly important in Colombia and the world. Entire cities such as Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena, among others, have tourist and informative tours that are anchored in the presence of murals in entire neighborhoods. It is no longer news to Colombians how effective, substantial and necessary the artistic intervention of public spaces is for the construction of common narratives and the exercise of citizenship. As a result, and fortunately, the murals and graffiti in the cities have generated an emotional bond with the inhabitants that, among other consequences, builds the conviction of the need for their protection: they are ours. This, added to the growing popularity of artists, means that any unsuspecting action or decision by a brand can be counterproductive if it infringes on this new form of citizen heritage. As explained in the previous section, outdoor visual advertising is pollution and therefore subject to controls and regulations. Hence, communities and citizens protest when the "replacement" of a work of art by an advertising campaign becomes evident, thus generating an unnecessary and uncontrollable wave of discredit in social networks (as happened in the case of Medellin). It is also possible that in the debate the brand may be singled out for making a selfish and greedy use of public space (even though it has permits and legal interpretations). To that extent, it is preferable that when thinking about an advertising campaign on the street and its walls, the artist and his or her thoughts are privileged in an honest and forceful way, and that commercial reasons and purposes take a back seat or are evidenced in other instances of communication. For example, in content for social networks.


The wasted artists

Something that is striking, and we say this with full knowledge of the facts, are the careless forms and backgrounds in which the artists' skills and talent are wasted. In some of these advertising campaigns with murals, the concept, graphics and message are previously defined: the artist is used as a wall printer. This fact is clearly inconvenient because it ignores the immense potential in the exercise of the graffiti artist's or muralist's thinking; thus subjecting him to a simple technical paint applicator. Of course, involving the artist in a more profitable way may take more time and some resources, but there is no doubt that the results (this time legitimate) would be very different. It is of course a simple allocation of efficient functions: let them do their job and not replace them with commercial concepts that often escape the spectators' spectrum of attention and reflection. Another yet uncalculated and harmful effect of these campaigns, is that by limiting the artist, it is likely that harmful ideas nest in them, such as a certain "efectism" when painting the street, misleading careers and reducing their inhabiting the street to the accumulation of followers and likes. The Influencer devouring the graffiti artist.

The perversion of culture

Aside from individual considerations of the potential harmful effects of certain advertising campaigns on artists, it is worth considering the effects on mural and graffiti culture and practices in general terms. As we stated on another occasion, the simple fact of generating a market for facade rentals can seriously impact other artists whose budgets do not include this type of charges. However, the real danger is the deformation of the meaning of artistic intervention in public space. In other words, the mutation of a scenario of freedom and expression such as the street into spaces co-opted by private commercial interests. The paradoxical thing is that companies and brands could also join in the construction of this freedom and street expression, indeed, they are fundamental in this purpose, but if they continue in the trend of stripping spaces, the city and its environment will become a great commercial advertisement made of paints and strokes. There will be more consumption but less freedom.


Low effectiveness

Finally, it is necessary for both marketing departments and advertising agencies to reflect on the true forcefulness of these campaigns. First of all, will it make sense to paint a wall in cities full of graffiti where it is very difficult to stand among the large number of artworks? In our opinion, it would only make sense if the action has two characteristics: its monumentality and its continuity over time. Subjected to the logic of the billboard, many brands rent spaces for short and limited times that prevent the work -and even the message- from taking hold over time. Have you told your clients that if they abandon the idea of direct advertising on the wall, the works could last for months or even years and be used, with its message and graphics, by the brand and the citizens themselves? On the other hand, there are more and more brands that in search of new audiences and a connection with younger audiences try to intervene the streets with advertising disguised as murals. Beforehand, they should know that when everyone tries to enter through the same door, no one succeeds. Again, the street and the artists could offer an infinite number of alternatives for the innovation of these actions, which with an important degree of planning can become successful in front of an audience of millions of people. Being different is only possible if you stop doing the same as everyone else.

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The purpose of this reflection is in no way to underestimate the importance of the private sector's involvement in the construction of graffiti culture, nor to ignore how its campaigns have served as a legitimate livelihood for many artists. Rather, these considerations are intended to initiate a conversation in which we reflect on the role played by advertising and commercial actions in public space when they revolve around urban art and graffiti. In Colombia we have come very far with the construction of culture and the practice of graffiti and that is why immense possibilities are opening up for the participation of brands and companies. It would only be enough to give graffiti its place and importance and insist that the great potential flourishes within the way of thinking and feeling of hundreds of muralists and graffiti artists.


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