Chevrolet Sonic ad angers Montreal artists

G.M.’s use of street mural without permission leads to payout

John F. Martin/AP

The advertising campaign for the Chevrolet Sonic, a compact car aimed at young, urbanites, fittingly featured it in a gritty cityscape — downtown Montreal — in front of a large graffiti mural.

It was a hit with car buyers. But not so impressed were the 26 artists who made the mural for an annual street art festival, Under Pressure. The artists were outraged their work was being used to sell a car and that they had not been compensated. For the past year, they have been engaged in an aggressive social media campaign against General Motors and the ad firm MacLarren McCann and Cossette.

According to General Motors, the use of the graffiti was inadvertent. (The commercial was eventually pulled and the ad campaign adjusted). “It was never our intention to use this artwork without the permission of the artists,” says Faye Roberts, a spokesperson for General Motors Canada, who adds the company is now “eager to resolve the matter.”

Sterling Downey, co-founder of the Under Pressure festival and spokesperson for the artists involved, says the use of the work was no accident. He says the ad went so far as to use Photoshop to alter some of the graffiti to make it more commercial friendly, removing a reference to Lady Gaga. “They’ve diffused the artwork of an extremely well known artist,” he says. “The only reason they did that was because they knew that it was illegal to use the name Lady Gaga and associate it with their product. But it was OK to associate the artwork?”

The actual legalities of using street art is a legal grey zone. Graffiti, after all, is intended for public consumption (and is itself often illegal). Alan Conter is a media law and ethics professor at Concordia University. He says that in this case, however, G.M. should have sought permission. “Murals that have been commissioned for the outside of buildings are the intellectual property of the artists.”

The artist responsible for the Lady Gaga piece, who goes by the name Zilon, has received a “substantial enough settlement,” says Downey. As for the other artists, their year-long campaign appears to be paying off. They
recently started “legal discussions” with G.M.

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