A-style: harmless nipple-slip or unfair tactics

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The A-style brand image is a masterfully clever logo. It is driving a young company to international recognition and once you’ve realized what the innocent A signifies, its symbolic nature leaps out at you. Beginning with street level buzz marketing tactics, the Italian A-style logo has systematically used the most cost-efficient marketing methods to develop an international awareness using its provocative imagery. Over recent years we have seen the rise of savvy street brands with defiant brain-slapping names such as Pornstar and FCUK, but A-style has pushed things several notches up the "i-can't-believe-they-can-get-away-with-that" scale. Originally commercially invigorated with street stickers and stencils, A-style has used street-level buzz marketing to grow to international prominence and is now sponsoring global televised sport to deliver its in-yer-face branding. Does it press your buttons? It’s designed to do so! And prepare for more subversive marketing, as it’s clearly very effective .

There were a few of us sat around watching the MotoGP last Sunday - it was the A-style Grand Prix of Japan and we were all enthralled in watching Valentino Rossi, the highest paid sportsperson in the world, wrest back his crown. Then Olivier declared, "clever logo." I'd seen the "A-Style" logo several times and hadn't noticed anything particularly clever, so I asked, "why is it clever?" Ollie grabbed the remote control and backed up the high def video stream until there was a sponsor logo visible on the screen and asked everyone if they could see what he could see. A-style is an Italian brand which came to international prominence in 2007 when it began sponsoring globally televised MotoGP events. Can you see what Olivier could see?

Perhaps due to context, it took time for some of those present with their heads firmly into the motorcycle racing to grasp the specific imagery of the title sponsor on the graphics flashing past – hardly the place where you’d expect to see people having sex. Hands up all those who by now can't see two people having intercourse doggie style?

Once you've seen it and primed the brain’s synapses, it can be seen from miles away, and can be easily spotted within a sea of promotional graphics – it is both simple and potent. Indeed, what followed for me was that the entire MotoGP landscape suddenly appeared filled with images of copulating couples and I was overwhelmed by the boldness of the entire branding exercise (here's what we could see in high definition on a 52 inch screen - example 1, example 2, example 3).

This wasn’t an obscure late-night-TV minority sport. We were watching the broadcast on high definition free-to-air broadcast TV. The vehicle for A-style’s assault on the public psyche was MotoGP – the pinnacle of motorcycle competition has several advantages over Formula One, the biggest spectator sport in the world. It's exciting because passes occur on most corners, the crashes are far more plentiful and spectacular, and because the best ever rider is also a promotional genius and is currenty riding. F1 is nervously looking over its shoulder.

With 18 Grand Prix races on five continents each year, MotoGP is a significant global sport, broadcast to more than 200 countries with an average audience of 329 million television viewers per event – almost all of them male, monied and 18-35 years of age. It delivers a highly-influential, edgey male audience on a global scale, as cost efficient as its street marketing with a global reach of delivering its potent logo-packaged brand message. The ubiquitous nature of the public signage employed by A-style at its sponsored MotoGP events (it also sponsors the Dutch TT at Assen each year) ensures the message is seen continuously for several hours on global television and in influential magazines and newspapers around the world.

The A-style brand has evolved quite unconventionally.

In the early nineties, the provocative A was conceived, produced, and PATENTED by Italian designer Marco Bruns. It became a popular sticker and print for surf, skate and urban orientated gear – subtle until you realize what it signifies and the delicious prospect your parents might never notice is no doubt part of the defiant appeal to youth which saw it proliferate.

With no attempts to commercialize on the design other than appearing on t-shirts here and there, the A concept lay semi-dormant for a decade and a half.

Around five years ago things began to move again when Bruns met influential people from the clothing industry who encouraged him to revive the image as a full-blown brand.

Clothing designer Simone Sidoti was apparently a significant influence on the evolution of Bruns’ naughty “A” into a full lifestyle brand with a collection of men's and women's fashion and availability across the world.

We approached A-style to speak to Bruns about the evolution of the brand, but have had no response. Accordingly, much of what we’ve been able to learn about the brand has been pieced together from elsewhere and will be modified as we learn more.

I’ve been writing this piece for ten days now and I’m still not sure if there’s an easy solution to the growing in-yer-faceness of subversive marketing or whether it even needs solving. I am however, a great believer in our children’s rights to grow up in the absence of such commercial sexualization of the environment – whatever your opinion might be, the role of sexual imagery in for-profit brands is an area in need of discussion.

A-style’s transition from a defiant symbol of youth to a subversive marketing powerhouse is fascinating as the logo has used it’s arresting imagery to create a commercial juggernaut. We don’t know the figures, but A-style is using a relatively small marketing budget to devastating effect in becoming known.

The brand has its roots in the disobedience and defiance movement which has always been part of Europe's street media from the time when the reformers used the first handbills to reach the people, 500 years ago. It’s an image born from the street movement which influenced millions of Europeans and it is now leveraging its brand values.

There is a strong and passionate element within European community which supports the right for the common man to have a voice via the streets. Beginning in 1991, Bruns provocative and patented A has been socialized well on the Internet but around four years ago, the brand began being systematically promoted using guerrilla media - as street stickers stuck to lamp-posts and frequently with spray paint messages being stenciled onto pavements – freely creating public advertising. There were also free events, all with a subversive theme, as the brand was emerging as a champion of the subversive marketing movement. This movement sees street art as part of the public landscape and the streets as a place where society should be reflected. The assumption is that the population is too conformist and needs to be shocked from its complacency.

The company is far from apologetic for its logo - the front page of the A-style web site carries a visual explanation of the logo's elements and how they fit together.

So I was surprised to find television sponsorship of an event with national sport status in these countries employing such blatant sexual imagery in such public places. It may once have been what people thought was a symbol of defiance akin to a Che Guavera t-shirt, but it has now entered the realms of carefully considered international brand building exploiting humanity's inbuilt primitive autonomous responses.

A-Style's sponsorship of mainstream primetime sporting events takes matters to a new levels of being in the public's face. It is a very clever logo driving a very clever international brand that's growing like topsy … and it appears to purposefully push the limits of what’s acceptable solely in the pursuit of profits.

That’s part of the brand and recognition building exercise.

As a member of the media, I'm all for free speech, lack of censorship and freedom of information to all - but another voice which captures my concerns really well is Kids free to be Kids which is concerned about "exposing children to inappropriate sexualized imagery in a bid to sell products and make profit."

There was a recent report on the sexualization of children by the Australian Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communication and the Arts which concluded that self regulation doesn't work and legislation is required.

Kids Free to be kids founder Julie Gale puts the argument quite convincingly in these videos from a television talk show in Australia.

There are some well-written reports on the subject, such as this one entitled "Corporate Paedophilia" on the kf2bk site.

We asked Dr Max Sutherland, author of global advertising textbook Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer about the nature of the A-style brand image, whether its effects were subliminal and its likely impact on children.

Max wrote, “while I certainly share your concerns about the sexualisation of children, this A-Style ad doesn't bother me at all in that regard, partly because it is unlikely to have any subliminal effect on kids who don't already understand the concept and even with older kids who do, it is still unlikely to have significant subliminal impact.

“Although for older kids (and adults) who do understand, it will benefit from conscious titillation, attention, word of mouth factor (as did FCUK). But that is a conscious effect not a subliminal one.

“To me this is visual innuendo. Much innuendo in Sesame Street that was very funny to adults would miss kids entirely and I don't think this is much different to that. I think it would miss kids completely unless they had already learned the concept of a) sex and b) sex done doggy fashion.

“The other reason I am not so concerned about it, is that the execution is symbolic rather than graphic. By analogy, cartoon violence does not have the same psychological impact on kids as violence depicted realistically in drama.”

So where does the line get drawn on what’s acceptable corporate behavior solely in the quest for profit?

If primetime television promotional efforts can display a copulating couple, what’s not acceptable. The prospect of outdoor advertising visually overwhelming the landscape has seen some interesting local responses already. Sao Paulo in Brazil banned outdoor advertising altogether and cities would unquestionably be more beautiful without it.

But if outdoor display persists in playing a role in what our cities will look like, is there room for the A-style logo. The prospect of overwhelmingly in-yer-face public advertising of the future (as portrayed in movies such as Bladerunner) is not a pleasant thought – imagine if the skyline of a city could be dominated by commercial brands taking a free ride on the sexuality theme (there is unquestionably a special pathway in the brain for reproduction-related matters). Is that okay?

A-style and its corporate stablemate brand AM Glory (another irreverent brand built with veiled reference to that part of the male anatomy which wakes up earlier than he does) are creating promotional currency by challenging what is publicly acceptable.

A much greater understanding of the subversive marketing movement can be found here in the Street Marketing Edition of French-English language marketing journal UNIQUE. It raises the question of what will prevent the subversive marketing movement from continuing to shock us and change the goalposts for acceptable commercial behavior within the context of society.

Without doubt, the success of FCUK and A-style will be emulated by other brands in the pursuit of the dollar. And until a limit is drawn, the behaviors of this infant marketing technology known as buzz marketing will give rise to many other "out-there" brands, each intent on shocking society to obtain brand recognition.

It was the presence of the A-style imagery on broadcast free-to-air television that made a huge difference to my perceptions.

The Internet is going global and mobile all at the same time. Within a few years there will two thirds of the people on the planet all seeing imagery via the Internet. It cannot be stopped, but at least it’s a place where you can choose what you see. It is an environment of choice.

Broadcast TV is a different animal and has direct access to the public psyche. It’s possible that the TV stations broadcasting the event may have been unaware of the imagery in the background.

The international sports sponsorship has long been the domain of smart marketers with large budgets, so it is interesting to see the arrival of A-style in the big league when most of its marketing budget would have been spent on stickers until now.

Curiously, international sports sponsorship has also been the domain of marketers of products which have questionable benefit to society and difficulty getting past regulatory frameworks in many countries – alcohol, tobacco and gambling. The governments of the world are already addicted to the money they glean from taxes on revenues from both these areas, and the international gateway to society of satellite TV has bypassed existing local laws many times already. While these subjects are seen by many as relatively clear-cut in terms of the negative impact they cause on the health of individuals and society as a whole, the debate over the appropriateness of subliminal marketing tactics like those used by A-Style falls into a greyer area, but it's one that warrants discussion in the era of ever expanding global media.

Mike Hanlon

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