IBM's guerilla ad campaign runs afoul of city officials

Through its ad agency, IBM has spray-painted advertisements for its servers on the sidewalks at dozens of street corners throughout San Francisco, from the high-tech nexus known as South of Market to the historic crossroads at Haight and Ashbury, where die-hard hippies panhandle for change.

The ads were created with a stencil and what looks like black spray paint, and feature three simple icons: a peace symbol, a heart, and a smiling, chubby penguin -- longtime mascot of the Linux operating system, which runs on some of IBM's servers.

"It's part of our outdoor strategy," an IBM spokeswoman said of the ads, which are part of the company's "Love, Peace & Linux" campaign launched last month. The campaign ads also appear on six-story billboards and in newspapers and television spots, and have been seen as a way to help Big Blue shed its stuffy, corporate image.

City officials weren't impressed.

"They're in violation of a city ordinance," said Alex Mamak, director of public affairs for the city's Department of Public Works. The signs violate section 5.6 of the public works code, article 184.57, he said, which makes it an offense to "erect, construct or maintain, paste, paint, print, nail, tack or otherwise fasten or affix" any sign to public property, including sidewalks.

In a city doused with its fair share of graffiti, where bright painted murals adorn the sides of many large buildings, clamping down on a picture of a small, flightless bird might seem like nitpicking. But city officials are firm.

"It's an urban visual blight issue," Mamak said, adding: "Does it signify anything?"

The painted ads don't mention IBM or its eServer family, and are part of a marketing push developed by New York advertising company Ogilvy and Mather, a unit of WPP Group PLC. IBM can't shift the blame on the agency, however; responsibility for the infraction lies with "the source," Mamak said.

One passer by was bemused by the slogans.

"I think this means Linux," said Jonas Yip, a chip designer in San Francisco. "But unless I really stopped to think about it, I probably wouldn't know what it means."

The public works department planned to call IBM Thursday and tell them to scrub the signs off, Mamak said. The infraction is punishable by a fine of up to $US500 or by community service.

The IBM spokeswoman couldn't comment on whether the painted signs are illegal, but said IBM has decided to pull back the painted ads, which also appear on street corners in New York City. "We won't be doing anything like this in the future," she said.

The signs are made from biodegradable chalk, she added, and can be removed easily.

"It washes right off, so it will be removed the next time it rains."

It rained in San Francisco Wednesday evening, but the penguins were still there Thursday morning, smiling broadly.

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James Niccolai

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