Paris-based American artist Jason Stoneking spent three months in Cairo at the end of 2014 as a resident artist in Artellewa, an art space in one of the city’s oldest informal neighborhoods. During this time he founded the Cairo Dish Painting Initiative, a campaign to paint the city’s signature satellite-dish skyline in a multitude of colors.
In January 2015, a few months after his residency had ended, he got a Facebook message from an employee at Cairo ad production company Lighthouse Productions. She asked him for his contact information so Lighthouse could feature him in a television commercial for a “big brand.”
After requesting further information, Stoneking found that the company was executing an ad on behalf of Pepsi Co for their new 7UP campaign. The concept, she wrote, was “how we look at things differently, in a beautiful manner. Just like how you saw an artwork out of normal satellites.”
In Facebook conversation, snapshots of which Stoneking shared with Mada Masr via email, the artist politely but clearly told her he did not want to associate his project with 7UP because he doesn’t drink soda, doesn’t even believe people should drink soda, and doesn’t believe art should be used to sell products.
“So I would not under any circumstances want any images of myself or my projects to be used in the advertisement,” he wrote, wishing her luck with the project.
Six months later, Stoneking found the 7UP advertisement on YouTube, a regional campaign with both Arabic and English versions. It featured his project.
The feel-good spot features young, passionate, happy people figuring out alternative solutions to make their homes and cities more exciting places. They turn a door into a ping-pong table, a tennis ball into a key-holder, a fire extinguisher into a scuba diver’s tank and an old tire into an indoor swing. They also make graffiti, including a computer keyboard on the pavement, a gameboy window and a policeman with a CCTV head.
Although the first subtitle of the advert after “7UP presents” reads “acts of originality” none of the above is original. Most of the graffiti is copied from street art in various parts of the world, and the indoor ideas are from 33-ways-to-make-your-house-cool type articles and Pinterest posts.
After people go about with their originality, the ad ends by giving credit to the youth groups featured, including Colouring the Grey City and Schaduf, two groups who agreed to appear. “Dish painting, Cairo” is featured, but with actors, not Stoneking and his crew.
I contacted Lighthouse through the employee who got in touch with Stoneking, but got no reply. When I called the company, they said they get their briefs as is and only execute, relinquishing responsibility for the infringement. When I asked for an interview several times through 7UP’s official Facebook account, they told me they would contact me for any possible collaboration, but did not.
Mada Masr spoke to Sherif Hosny, CEO of Schaduf, a company that creates rooftop gardens in Cairo. They confirmed they had agreed to be part of the advert and actually appear themselves in it.
Marwa Nasr, a founder of Colouring the Grey City, a group of students at Helwan University’s Fine Arts Faculty who have been painting vibrant colors and designs in Cairo’s public spaces for the past year, also confirmed that they appeared in the ad, but said it was not a positive experience. “They were not clear on the process and very disorganized,” she told Mada.
Nasr said they participated because they’re all young and still learning, and wanted the experience of being part of a set. They regretted it afterwards though, she said, feeling it was exploitative of their work to use it to sell a brand.
“I didn’t want the dish painting project, which so many local people participated in for free, just to enjoy expressing themselves, and adding beauty to their neighborhoods, to be used to try to get Egyptian people to give their money to a foreign corporation,” Stoneking told Mada Masr. “The concept of the ad was extremely cynical. The idea that 7UP has anything to do with creative expression is ridiculous.”
“I can understand why they had this idea. Because 7UP is not a beautiful or creative or inspiring thing. So they are desperate to attach themselves to other things that are beautiful, creative, and inspiring, so they can make themselves look better by association,” Stoneking said.
One can argue however that Stoneking does not own the idea of painting satellite dishes. Who owns a public space painting idea? Who owns home decorating ideas that are posted on Pinterest? Can companies use ideas that are shared widely to sell us products? Or is there a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not?
The 7UP spot features actors painting satellite dishes, but it also mentions the initiative in the final “credits” section, so it is easy to pinpoint their lack of respect for Stoneking’s wishes. But if they had just featured the idea, without mentioning the initiative, could we so easily blame them for intellectual theft?
Stoneking is unsure whether he will try to press charges or not. In a New York Times article published in July 2008, journalist Mia Fineman recounts similar stories from around the world where major corporations “borrowed” ideas from artists, narrating how some artists won cases against them while others realized it was a lost battle against such a huge corporation with the ability to spend endlessly on legal consultation.
With public art, the conundrum deepens, since unlike paintings, films or songs which can be registered and have rightful owners and legal frameworks set up to protect their producers, public art is available and free. Sometimes art is public space is signed, and sometimes it’s not. People can reproduce graffiti and street painting initiatives or share imagery of them freely. The guidelines on where and when they can be reproduced are blurred and left up to individual judgement.
Who owns public space?
This is not the first time Pepsi Co. in Egypt has had a feud with artists. After the 2011 revolution, the graffiti movement in Egypt boomed due to both inspiration from the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s government and the security vacuum that formed after them. Cairo’s streets were full of political, and some non-political, artworks.
A blogger who fiercely documented that graffiti movement, Suzee in the City, wrote a blogpost in August 2011 highlighting how companies were using graffiti for ad campaigns. One in particular by Pepsi really agitated three artists. Pepsi painted a long wall in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, one of the hotspots for graffiti at the time, with colourful paintings of a slogan about free creative expression.
Three graffiti artists, each working alone, painted over the wall and other outdoor Pepsi adverts. Designer and street artist Adham Bakry sprayed alternative adverts for Vimto on the wall and other street ads, El Teneen spray-painted Coca-Cola Chivas and Sinalco’s logos on a wall Pepsi had painted in Heliopolis, and Keizer sprayed his famous ants on the Zamalek wall.
“I wanted to show Pepsi that we don’t need a graffiti ad to remind us to express ourselves,” El Teneen wrote to Suzee at the time. “The streets and its walls are the people’s. Greed needs to pay for its billboards.”
Stoneking agrees. “They need very much to associate themselves with artists,” he told Mada. “But we don’t in any way need to associate ourselves with them.”