SAN FRANCISCO — City officials here are steamed over IBM's sidewalk graffiti advertising campaign, which they say has left a mess.
Public works teams on Monday scoured the city for the cartoonish stencils of peace symbols, hearts and the smiling Linux penguin mascot that are part of a "Peace, Love & Linux" promotion that IBM hopes will jump-start sales of a new workstation using the Linux operating system.
Miffed city officials said the campaign has backfired, but advertising experts say the guerrilla street ploy is part of a marketing trend that has already garnered the company millions of dollars in free advertising.
Thousands of the fist-sized symbols began popping up last month on sidewalks in busy tourist areas from North Beach to the Castro, prompting immediate complaints. IBM officials said the ads--targeted for San Francisco, Chicago and Boston--are done in biodegradable chalk that will soon wear off under rain and foot traffic.
Not so, fumed officials in San Francisco and Chicago. Last week, crews in both cities began blasting off the ads with a high-pressure mix of water and baking soda.
In this city long associated with both free expression and the anti-war peace symbol, officials said the signs are neither art nor advertising, just vandalism.
"We have zero tolerance for using our sidewalks or public buildings for any type of vandalism," said Christine Falvey, a public works department spokeswoman. "To us, that is just what this is: vandalism. And we're going to considerable expense and time to get rid of these things."
Officials threatened fines of up to $500 per ad plus cleanup costs. And a county supervisor on Monday introduced a measure calling for the city attorney to seek felony charges against IBM for what he called a reckless gimmick.
"We prosecute young people for this crime all the time in this city," said Michael Farrah, an aide to Supervisor Gavin Newsom. "Here we have a company that has admitted its wrongdoing; if we don't go after them, then we have a double standard, and that's not quite fair."
Company officials said Monday they have already apologized to city officials and consider the matter closed.
"We've talked with officials and have agreed to pay for the cleanup," said Edward Barbini, an IBM spokesman in New York. "This is not the type of campaign we want to be noted for. It was a mistake and we admit it."
City officials said IBM initially stonewalled them on the number and locations of the stenciled images and refused to divulge who was responsible for them.
Barbini said the company hired independent vendors to spray-paint the graffiti and has sent a team out to eradicate the images.
San Francisco officials said they believe the images were stenciled late at night. Chicago officials last week arrested a man for painting IBM graffiti on city streets at 2 a.m.
Falvey said the city is tired of waiting for IBM to clean up its mess. "If we catch anybody, we're going to arrest them," she said.
Advertising experts say IBM is already a winner.
"It's like the old adage says--there's no such thing as bad publicity," said Peter Breen, editor of the marketing magazine Promo.
Seeking to attract a younger, hipper audience, believing they weren't getting enough returns with TV ads, many firms have moved their marketing campaigns to the streets, Breen said.
They barnstorm city squares without permits, handing out product until chased away by police. Many campaigns include bail money for street workers who are arrested.
"With this campaign, IBM is going after the young computer techies, and they're a different breed; they might say, 'IBM is flouting the law with this graffiti. That's cool. I'll buy their product,' " Breen said.
The symbols have also been appearing on billboards and in magazines to tout IBM products.
But the campaign could come back to haunt the firm.
"If there is enough citizen outrage, they could have bought themselves a bad image," Breen said. "But if being a bad boy impresses their target audience, I'm sure that's OK with them."
As he watched a city work crew blast away six graffiti symbols, one San Francisco resident could only shake his head.
"They should charge those IBM people a lot of money for this," said a poet who identified himself only as Carter. "Look at all the free publicity this is bringing those corporate millionaires.
"And as we all know, nothing today is free."