Flying into trouble in the credibility search

The bandit image that fly-posting gives brands may be bought at too high a price.

SBHD: The bandit image that fly-posting gives brands may be bought at too high a price.

Nobody can say they haven’t been warned. “Dave’s the name, flyposting’s the game – just don’t tell the men in blue,” is how one London-based flyposterer answers the phone.

Frankly, Dave, the men in blue probably don’t give a damn. Outdoor Advertising Association director John Clew says: “When you’ve just dealt with the 14th bank robbery of the night, flyposting is not a priority.”

It seems advertisers are catching on to this. Take a walk around Soho in London and it is not just the low-budget clubs, music labels and bands who are flyposting. The big brand names are there too. Sony Electronic Publishing is pushing its computer games, Golden Wonder its Bandidos crisps. Radio One and Capital Radio appear regularly promoting concerts.

All flyposting in the Soho area is illegal, however. The police may not be worried, but perhaps the marketing departments should start to reassess whether creating a brand image justifies flouting the law.

The legal side of flyposting is a grey area. The basic rule is that a flyposter can only be pasted on a building if the product it is advertising is being sold inside. Otherwise it needs the permission of the landlord, usually the local council.

Sony and Golden Wonder justify their campaign by saying they work through local councils and instruct flyposting agencies to use legal sites. “That’s bullshit,” claims flyposterer Dave, who prefers to remain just that, Dave. Although flyposting agencies frequently claim to have close ties with local councils, it is highly unlikely that any flyposting campaign is entirely legal, he says. “If you’re putting up 5,000 posters you don’t seek permission for every one. If there is a boarded-up window, you paste it. You don’t check if there is someone living in the building.”

Far from acting as a deterrent, this anarchic image is the attraction for many advertisers. The theory is that flyposting, with its image of rival gangs, night swoops, and even the occasional murder, brings a faceless conglomerate instant credibility with its target youth audience. “It is seen as a street-cred thing,” Chris Meredith, UK marketing manager of Sony Electronic Publishing (SEP), says. “It’s youth culture.”

It is also an incredibly cheap advertising opportunity. SEP has an annual marketing budget of just £15,000. Flyposters cost an average of £1.50 each to put up. In contrast, Sega’s pirate TV campaign through WCRS last May achieved the same maverick image while trying to seek the same audience, but cost £2m.

While the campaign cost is low, however, the potential threat to the company’s image is considerably higher. Both Sony and Golden Wonder have spent millions promoting a wholesome image for their brands. Flyposting may give brands a feel of lawlessness and anarchy, but creating this feel actually involves the company itself defying the law.

As one marketing analyst says: “The marketing department may think this is a good idea for one brand, but I bet they haven’t told the men at the top just what their ideas are doing to the company’s image.”

The need to protect the broader company image is part of the reason why the Sony brand name does not appear on any flyposters. “We won’t use the Sony name. We use the games brands,” says Sony EP UK product manager Geoff Glendenning. “We didn’t really want to draw immediate attention to Sony in case someone in the council got a bee in his bonnet about the whole thing.”

But there is already an angry buzz from the councils. “Flyposting is an eyesore,” Peter Reeve, area enforcement officer with Westminster City Council and part of its three-man flyposting swat team, says. “People paste on traffic control boxes, and they obscure signs. It distracts motorists and makes things look tatty.”

The council gives advertisers 48 hours notice to take down illegal posters. Then they are prosecuted, with fines of up to £1,000 a poster. But there are few examples of successful prosecution against advertisers. The action is brought against the flyposter firm. Fear of the consequences has already forced some smaller companies and organisations to take action. Many now carry an instruction that the posters must not be used as a flyposter although they inevitably are.

It is illegal. It is potentially damaging. And there is even some doubt over whether it is effective. “It’s a bit of a cliché street cred now,” Simon Jeffrey, marketing manager for Virgin Interactive Games, says. “People say, `let’s be streetwise. Oh, let’s use flyposters.'”

As more big brand names start using flyposter sites, the anarchic image could start gradually eroding into the mainstream. Flyposting holds interest for the consumer because it is a medium for genuine underground products. It is debatable whether consumers will still be convinced if the flyposting industry is hijacked by big brand manufacturers.

Dave the flyposterer may worry about the men in blue. The advertisers do not appear to. Perhaps, though, they should be worried about long-term damage to the brand and to the advertising industry’s image.

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