urban spam

I was in Paris over the long weekend for the first time in eight years. It’s my favorite city in the world and my favorite activity is to leisurely people-watch at the outdoor cafés.

In France, there’s a lot of talk about the “American McDonaldization” of culture and I was curious to see what had changed in eight years. The last time I was here, we wondered if Starbucks would eventually take over and ruin the quintessential French café culture. While I only saw one or two Starbucks on this trip (and only in the touristy areas), what struck me was how many cafés have now resorted to advertising on every available surface. The French café has “Starbucked” itself; it didn’t need Seattle.

This may not be new, but it surprised me to have an espresso in a quiet cafe overlooking an ancient market square, only to notice that my tabletop was composed of a loud consumer products ad for a sweetener now containing folic acid that can be found at your local supermarché.

As a marketer, I respected the connection between this coffee ritual and a sweetener brand, and that this would be a nice “aperture” to reach my target consumer. But, as a consumer (albeit a temporary one), I saw it as an unwelcome interruption. If the café had actually offered this sweetener in addition to the sugar, I might have appreciated the implied endorsement. But, it was just an ad like any other. It just happened to be on my table.

It all got me thinking about “urban spam”, a term I discovered via Russell Davies (who had these cards designed to give out to urban spammers). In the land grab to advertise on every available space, it’s a slippery slope to the the world feeling like a Ryan Air cabin. And because most of these ads are largely generic, they just add to the clutter.


When an ad feels like an unwelcome interruption or even just ambient noise, is it really doing the brand any favors? I think the key, like everything else, is to be remarkable in execution.

The beauty brand, Yes to Carrots, recently launched in Paris, and they executed a one-day stunt using media space that had never been used before. Paris has an automated system of bicycles that Parisians can rent by the hour to get around town. Each bike has a basket to use for groceries. The bikes are unbranded, but ubiquitous. A Yes to Carrots team turned up early one morning and filled every bicycle basket in Paris with free carrots and information on their launch in Sephora. It wasn’t technically legal, so they rode bicycles over to the proper ministry afterwards to pay a fine (which was built into the cost of the promotion).

I found this stunt pretty remarkable. While it was a form of interruption, it feels like a welcome one. The free carrots were a gift (many Parisians use the bikes for grocery shopping anyway), and it was unexpected because it hadn’t been done before.

Yet, it now becomes just one more media space frontier that has been crossed. Once Paris starts to officially sell bicycle media space, a bicycle basket ad alone will no longer be remarkable. Not intrinsically anyway. It will become as commonplace as advertising on a grocery cart basket. It will become even more “urban spam”. The definition of what’s remarkable is a moving bar. And if you can’t be remarkable at it, I think you have to question whether it’s really worth doing.

  1. Mike S. says

    Dear World:

    We want our oligopoly on marketing venues back.


    Newspapers, television, and billboards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *