Using social marketing
to prevent graffiti vandalism

Secretly, I love graffiti.

When it is art, graffiti is a beautiful weed growing from a crack in the sidewalk – a vast improvement to the blank gray walls of concrete indifference to the miracle, the great pleasure of having eyes that can see color.









Many graffiti artists specialize in typography, others in murals that tell stories or make statements. It’s a unique artistic style.

Typograffiti in East LA, home to many Hispanics of Mexican descent










One particularly gorgeous piece I saw was painted on the big, blank, beige, backside of a bank. Covering about 60 square feet of that blind expanse of stucco, this marvelous piece of graffiti was an oasis in a thousand acres of rock. Graffiti like that makes me want to find that kid and give him a job. The signature was CraZJZ, but he didn’t leave a number.

Graffiti can be beautiful.

Unfortunately, only about 5% of all graffiti is the really cool graffiti. Graffiti Hurts calls this type of graffiti ‘pieces’ as opposed to the gang type, the hate-based type, political statements, or the generic “Ricky loves Lucy” type of graffiti. They do not call graffiti of any kind ‘master-pieces’ and they do not call the creators ‘artists’.

Mysterious London graffiti artist Banksy is known for his many creative but illegal works.














I can understand the lack of tolerance. The vast majority of graffiti is nothing but the sloppy emissions of punks lifting a limb to leave a mark. This behavior may be disgusting, but it’s not unnatural. Our macho little dog, Tino, does the same thing when he walks his neighborhood.

New York City normal










For the teenage boys who make up the majority of those who commit graffiti, according to Graffiti Hurts, fame and self-expression plus power and rebellion are the primary motivators. Maslow might say the same thing, but he’d call them normal human needs for status and self-actualization, security and self-determination.

For Tino, the marking behavior is only about the fame. Tino was here. And here. And here. And here.

Graffiti is a crime

My company designs interpretive panels, including signs along nature trails that show aspects of the natural environment. We make them attractive, and we use social marketing statements to influence how people interact with the resource. You can download a pdf of our Sign Designs or see our Portfolio for some recent projects.

I’ve seen our beautiful artwork and careful messaging damaged within days of installation with spray paint, permanent markers and knife cuts. Some of our signs have been stolen. So when I say I love graffiti, I am distinguishing between graffiti that is art and graffiti that is clearly vandalism. There is a difference, and painting all graffiti with one broad stroke of recrimination does not acknowledge the different motivations of those who do it. Defining core motivations is essential to being able to define social marketing solutions that fit and have a chance of being effective.

Most graffiti is pure vandalism – increasing crime, decreasing property values, and costing society in other ways – $28 million in Los Angeles in 2006, just for clean up. There’s no doubt about it: graffiti contributes to the common bad.

Social marketing is about the common good. How can social marketing help deter graffiti? Different things motivate different people, so social marketing campaigns use several techniques to influence change.

Words that work and the power of images

The Social Marketing Institute’s listserv connects people from all over the world who want to influence positive change in public health and environmental protection using social marketing. Members share information about resources and new campaigns, debate aspects of social marketing, and ask for guidance to support their own efforts. A very active listserv for environmental social marketing discussions is Fostering Sustainable Behavior.

John Young, who is developing an anti-graffiti program in Queensland, Australia, posted to the list looking for leads to existing campaigns that use social marketing principles. It caught my attention because I’ve been thinking about graffiti in light of the entertaining graffic style that it is, but hadn’t really thought about it in terms of a problem that can be addressed by social marketing, until seeing John’s post. At the bottom of this post are links to learn more about influencing behavior – not just social marketing but also the science of propaganda. Influence is like fire, and can be used to burn a house or cook a meal.

Ideas for a social marketing campaign to prevent graffiti

The Norm Appeal

Most of us are social creatures. Norm messages are so effective in part because about 85% of people are group-oriented. Maslow identified the needs to belong and to be approved of as the most important to people, once the physiological needs for food and safety are satisfied. Therefore, most people can be motivated by things that engage their natural desire to do what the group does. If kids see graffiti (live or on TV), they think it’s normal and a percentage will want to do it. When graffiti is not the norm, and kids have better ways to meet their needs, they are less likely to engage in graffiti.

Assert Authority

Stating the rules and consequences – and following up – will deter a substantial number of people from engaging in behaviors that have negative consequences. They could be the same age and gender as typical taggers, but their idea of normal does not include jail. Rebellion is a messy room, fame is won on the field or on a stage doing High School Musical. Power is definitely not sitting in a police car with cuffs on. Statements about rules and consequences work well with this group.

Respecting Respect

Studies show that some people get fired up when confronted with rules and warnings. For taggers rebellion is part of the fun, so replacing an authoritarian message with statements such as Respect our city. Respect yourself presents less of a direct challenge to bored bad boys with brushes, and reinforces the notion of a larger community.

Potential taggers are also less likely to spray if the message is framed in terms of the desired behavior. Showing or describing the behavior you want to see is much more effective than showing what you don’t want. The red NO symbol is falling out of use for this reason, although sometimes there’s no other good way to say something like No Smoking. That would be, what, an image of clean air?

Loss Aversion

Many people think convicts go around painting over graffiti, but it’s often state and city employees with pensions who do it, at much greater taxpayer expense. Just presenting the facts doesn’t usually influence people to change a behavior, however. Telling them what you want them to do about it will help boost compliance.

“Graffiti is a crime. Report it to police” is not going to do it, though. It’s a challenge to taggers and it’s too general to motivate all but the most determined anti-taggers. Giving specific directions (call this number) has been shown to be more effective at motivating otherwise passive witnesses.

Stated more positively:
Graffiti costs you and all taxpayers money that could be used for better things. Keep your neighborhood safe and looking good by helping us stop graffiti crime. Report graffiti now to (phone number).
This statement contains a direct personal reference (you), norm inclusions (all taxpayers, your neighborhood, help us), a call to action (call now), and addresses the powerful human need for security.

Or co-opt the hard parlance of the street, something like:
Graffiti is busted. If you see it, call it: (phone number).

Or to use a familiar call to action that is still popular after many years:
Call now! (phone number) It’s a free call! You have nothing to lose, and you could win $25,000 in increased home value! But wait, there’s more!! You can save up to $50 a year in taxes! Call now, operators are standing by to take your report.

Kidding!! Sort of – New York and other cities have adopted a program that allows citizens to call 311 to report graffiti, potholes, and other problems. New York’s operators speak more than 170 languages, and the 311 program is expanding to allow even better and more timely communication.

Modeling Behavior

It’s important to SHOW and SPEAK the desired behavior whenever possible. Humans are sensual creatures who learn by imitation, and a significant number read only when necessary. A great image will do more to get the message across than any words.

Because most perpetrators of graffiti are teenage guys, use images that show people like themselves (and their hot girlfriends/boyfriends) having fun doing legal things. This models the behavior you want them to recognize as normal, or at the very least shows them another option. Never before have kids had so many opportunities to define themselves, so even if a positive image is just a drop in the bucket, it still has value to those who see it.

One of the biggest problems for designers of social marketing campaigns is the competition. There’s a tremendous amount of competition for everyone’s attention, which causes ever more extreme images, plots, and behaviors. Gritty crime shows just wouldn not be able to deliver the necessary sense of menace if they shot scenes in a meadow on a sunny day. Graffiti is texture that contributes to the realism of a scene, and a director’s desire to make a scene believable is not going to change.

To the extent possible though, enlist media of all kinds to avoid publishing images of graffiti. It’s not really in their self-interest, because crime sells newspapers. But you can always ask. Local media in particular will be more invested in efforts to keep their city looking nice. If their advertisers have to spend money getting rid of graffiti, that’s less money for advertising. Think of something that is in their best interest and pitch it from that angle. The more sponsors and partners your campaign brings on board the more momentum you can build, though this certainly adds complexity.

Show the behavior you want to see – not the behavior you don’t want

Inappropriate responses to a problem can create many more problems, including the opposite of what you intend. You may have seen a dramatic commercial against illegal copying that plays before a movie on a DVD. Young attractive models, check. Edgy graphics and a groovy soundtrack, check. Strong norm messaging You wouldn’t steel a purse, you wouldn’t steal a car… Check. All good stuff so far. Show the behavior we DON’T want… whoa!

You see a stolen disk slipped into a jacket over and over and you’ve got a norm, no matter what the subtitles say. With messaging like that it’s no wonder people think it’s OK to burn copies for friends. People see, people do. It’s how we learn. The studios compound their misguided campaign to prevent copying by threatening preteens and college students with lawsuits. The parents were quick to settle, but not before parents and kids come to fear and hate the overpowering use of authority, for using a sledgehammer to kill a dandelion growing in an expansive lawn. For smart young people with authority issues who’ve been using computers since an early age, this is a lot of hot air. A challenge.

Much more effective would be footage of happy, young, attractive models gathered to watch a DVD movie together in a cool space. Lots of laughing and close, comfortable friendship are powerful images because this is something most people desire. Every time the message is spoken that you wouldn’t steal… cut to a grimy shot of one after another model, now unhappy and alone in a starkly lit jail cell, looking scared and bad in last night’s party clothes.

Many campaigns would benefit from a social marketing makeover to get new and better tools for influencing behavior. Because different people are motivated by different things, sometimes you do need a hammer, sometimes you need to drill the message in. And sometimes you can just tack up a little reminder – what social marketers call ‘prompts’ – to reinforce the behavior that you want to see.

Remember to phrase things positively whenever possible. State the appropriate behavior, and separate authoritarian from positive messages if you can. Studies show that positive messages can be more effective than fear-based messages, but a well-rounded campaign includes both. If you want to stop a behavior, don’t show somebody doing it to a soundtrack! Do show consequences.

Clean it up

Rapid removal of graffiti is considered very important, because leaving it there invites more graffiti and more criminal activity. Graffiti becomes the norm. Removing graffiti quickly demonstrates that the authorities won’t tolerate it. Where graffiti is tolerated, the message is clear that the authorities and the neighbors don’t care or can’t do anything about it, giving the power to the perpetrators.

I realize there are all sorts of problems with what I’m about to say, but if I were in charge of graffiti removal I would leave the artworks and remove the obvious junk. Would this encourage better graffiti? It would be worth a test, which is a big part of social marketing. If you don’t systematically evaluate various messages in various ways – surveys, incidence rates, costs – you can’t really say how effective the social marketing campaign has been over time.

Create alternatives

Graffiti studies show that murals are not usually defaced. Instituting a mural program through youth centers will give the graffiti-prone demographic an alternative for creative expression. Mature hands control the process and guide the flow of youthful energy into public artworks that inspire and uplift.

Murals humanize a cityscape that has replaced the rich diversity of a natural landscape with barren, impersonal walls. A great article in Time discusses the 2500 murals throughout Philadelphia. Murals remain a source of pride for the artists and their families. More importantly from authorities’ prospective, the people buy in to the graffiti-free ethic and are more willing to help control the vandalistic type. When our interpretive signs were defaced, the neighbors cleaned it up immediately and then called the authorities.

This mural in Brazil enhances what would otherwise be an ugly brick wall.

















Creativity is not a crime

Blank walls tempt me too, but I have a long-standing policy against incarceration, and I find that a digital canvas is so much more versatile than a can of Krylon. I would love to see the taggers with talent get some opportunities to make art that doesn’t also make them criminals.

There’s a cool competition where young graphic designers work quickly to create art, in front of a crowd, before the clock ticks down. It’s interesting for its parallels to young criminals working quickly to create art, in front of their homies, before the cops come down.

The Cut & Paste Digital Design Tournament
, sponsored by Adobe, Wacom and Wired, tours cities around the world every year. Young artists work directly on the LCD screen of a Wacom tablet using Adobe software such as Photoshop. Their works-in-progress are live and competitive, projected side-by-side overhead. The designers are interviewed in front of the jostling crowd between 15-minute bouts of head2head creative combat. The buzz ratchets up with every elimination, until finally one artist wins and gets mobbed like a rock star. Great prizes are awarded. Videos are posted. Nobody gets arrested.

Unfortunately, doing an art show highlighting graffiti style encourages imitation – for at least three blocks in every direction, according to one study.

It would be very cool to figure out how to circumvent that problem, because events like this address the same primary motivators for many young creatives. Graffitists and graphic artists are hip and the work is often edgy, which could be called rebellion, though I think self-expression is a better term here. Local fame is one thing; YouTube fame can get you a shot on The Daily Show. The creativity under pressure is obviously thrilling to do and fun to watch.

And power? Maybe it’s the competition and a chance to win the coolest geek tool for artists. Or maybe it’s more like empowerment from being really great at something, and being recognized for it.

Fame and self-expression, power and rebellion motivate graffiti artists - what Abraham Maslow calls normal human needs for status and self-actualization, security and self-determination.











Graffiti is as old as civilization

Mayan, Viking, Irish and Egyptian ruins all bear examples of graffiti, from the equivalent of gang tags and sexual commentary to fabulous murals that have been accorded artistic classification. Pompei, covered in volcanic ash almost 2000 years ago and extraordinarily well-preserved, contains all types of graffiti: ancient curses, slogans, poems, declarations of love, advertisements and come-ons (for a good time, come to Venus), and political caricatures such as the one at right (Mr. Magoo, is that you?).

Graffiti has been with us a long time. Stopping it entirely, the zero-tolerance model promoted by many authorities, is a big challenge to say the least. I think a good anti-graffiti campaign will include a stepped series of benchmarks that allow some successes and provide data for comparative study. It should include a variety of techniques, including authoritative as well as market-tested messaging, prompts, testing and targeting. And it should offer ways to channel the natural human impulse to express ourselves.

More great social marketing resources:

Online Social Marketing Training
Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM)
Tools of Change
National Social Marking Centre (UK)
Robin Hood Marketing
Springwise Brain Food
Spare Change Blog

“Words That Work” by Frank Luntz
“The Tipping Point” by Malcom Gladwell
“Robin Hood Marketing” by Katya Andresen
“Inside Influence” by Robert Cialdini
“Hands-on Social Marketing” by Nedra Klein Weinreich

Gaia Graphics & Associates… creative by nature ~ www.gaiagraphics.com