Apparently Coca-Cola is really into New Orleans lassez-faire lifestyle, so much so that they decided to cover the sidewalks of the historic French Quarter and Treme neighborhoods with company logos as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign ahead of this weekend’s Final Four Championship games. As quickly as the adverts popped up, so too did angry comments on social media around the city, prompting Coca-Cola to begin the removal process as quickly as the stencils had been applied.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson who spoke to nola.com did not know the name of the New York ad agency took out Craigslist ads calling for street artists to apply the stencils to city sidewalks, but maintained that the company had not authorized the campaign. A New Orleans City Hall official who claimed to have been informed over the phone that the graffiti is to be removed also did not know who was directly responsible, other than that the Caller ID said “Coca Cola.”
Setting aside the absurdity of a seemingly anonymous yet somehow paid-for guerrilla marketing campaign for one of the world’s largest corporations, what’s the big deal? Well, a couple of things. First of all, the postings are illegal. Even applied as they are, with an aerosol chalk, New Orleans prohibits “posted or painted advertisement on any street, sidewalk, public buildings, utility poles, light standards, street signs, parking meters, trees located in public rights-of-way.” That means stapling a flyer for your band’s show onto a telegraph poll is illegal. Yet Coca-Cola’s mystery ad agency promoted the task online, paid for the work, and ostensibly got away with it.
Secondly, New Orleans is home to some of the best street art around. When Swoon built her Dithyrambalina Music Box in the Bywater Neighborhood, she also graced dilapidated buildings with her work. Shortly before Hurricane Gustav hit in 2008, Banksy applied whimsical, poignant works to abandoned structures and levee walls. And it’s not just the heavy hitters, this winter one anonymous artist took it upon themselves to beautify the plywood boards that seal the doors of uninhabited buildings. NOLA Rising, a public art organization has its roots set firmly in street art, and with non-profit status works on a multitude of public art projects from large scale murals to creatively replacing missing street signs.
These local street art projects are typically not in tourist heavy areas, they contribute to the surrounding environments and they certainly don’t infringe upon valuable historic neighborhoods. Well conceived public art, even illegal street art projects can contribute much to the patchwork of the famously vibrant city. Mindless vandalism, let alone corporate vandalism, is far from well-received. And that’s exactly what Coca-Cola did. They commodifed a creative culture in a roundly tacky, contextually inappropriate manner.
Coca-Cola’s done this exact campaign before, and the background is a little ironic. Green Graffiti Finland, who specialize in “sustainable communications,” applied Coca-Cola stencils around the center of Helsinki as a paid for promotion of the beverage company’s website (though they are not clearly affiliated with the New Orleans grafitti). But sustainability isn’t just about saving paper — it applies to a wide variety of aspects of how you go about your business. So if you stake claim to “sustainability” — as Coca-Cola often tries to — illegally plastering corporate logos across historic neighborhoods of a rebuilding city probably isn’t the way to go about things.
While Coca-Cola works to remove the graffiti, local residents who undertook the task themselves found it to be pretty tough challenge. NOLAFemmes blogger Kalen Wright described to the Gambit that the aerosol chalk has “properties that are similar to chalk, but it’s not. It requires a lot of elbow grease to get it off.”
But the uproar surrounding the campaign, which it should be noted isn’t aimed at the folks whose sidewalks it’s appeared upon, probably means that it worked — Coca-Cola got a lot of press.
UPDATE On Friday Night 3/30, Coca-Cola began sending out messages from their official Twitter account to users who had commented on the stenciled guerrilla marketing campaign. The tweets stated “Our agency misinterpreted our permit. We are moving expeditiously to remove all of the chalk stencils. Thx!” Which would imply that they did have some form of initial approval from the City, albeit approval that may not have covered the advertising campaign they ultimately carried out.
Second Image of Decatur Street, New Orleans by La Citte Vie on Flickr