Fourth Street Flashpoint


No sooner did the posters go up than the graffiti went on. Along the fence at Bowery and 4th Street, the six characters in search of the brainpower to download Macromedia’s Flash Player attracted comment and commentary.

Under a head shot of a long-faced yokel big on ears and short on lips, the official copy read, “Linus Karlsson doesn’t have Flash. Does brush his tooth every morning.” Unfair to folks with “no access to dental and other health care!” read the unofficial response, scribbled in marker. “There’s nothing funny about domestic violence,” added a righteous scrawler next to the well-dressed matron glaring out of the photo of “Becky Hickey,” who also lacks Flash but “does have restraining orders from all three ex-husbands.”

These two characters, like the four other slightly demented folks lined up next to them—and repeating all down the fence—each bore the tag line “96% of online users have Macromedia Flash Player. The other 4%, frankly, scare us.”

A campaign like this was bound to draw some heat. “This feeds on the fear already pervasive of individuals with severe mental illness or people who are ‘different,’ ” objects Mary Rappaport, of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. “I know it’s offbeat humor, but I couldn’t call it harmless.”

Macromedia never intended to ridicule any group—whether schizophrenics, poor people, domestic violence victims, or perps—insists Russell Kelban, the company’s VP of corporate marketing. “When you’re dealing with humor, you have to take some risks,” he says. “But if we’ve offended the group that married three times and has restraining orders to stay away from all three husbands, then I’ll have to live with that.”

The company hoped to break through the clutter and attract attention. That seemed to be happening, at least on New York streets, as passersby stopped and stared. If you didn’t understand what’s being advertised, then you weren’t the target audience, which consists of Web designers hot to animate their sites. The company’s message is that their software is not just a niche thing, says Kelban, but a standard. “It’s ubiquitous, and designers and decision makers should feel comfortable using it for their Web sites.” He notes that the program is used on seven of the 10 highest-trafficked sites and that viewers can download it, free, in about 35 seconds.

The go-cards—postcards with one character on each—were a hit at the Internet World Expo at the Javits Center in October, with eager conventioneers hoarding them like baseball cards. “I don’t have Karlsson,” Kelban remembers people saying. Or “I’m missing Ashley,” a ditzy-looking blond who has no Flash but does think Danish people are from Daneland.

The creative team behind the campaign decided they’d get better mileage by poking fun at the 4 percent who don’t have Flash rather than touting the virtues of the 96 percent who do. For models, they recruited people on the street near their Minneapolis office—a gas station attendant, a real estate agent, a photographer—and made minor changes, or none at all, to their clothes and hair. “We just told them to look weird,” says Greg Braun, art director at Fallon advertising.

Braun and copywriter Mike Burdick had their own backstories for the characters. “For Becky,” recalls Braun, “it was almost like a Fatal Attraction thing that makes her scary. She has money and clothes and went to all the right schools, and she can’t imagine why any man wouldn’t want to be with her.”

“And Troy Swope,” adds Burdick, “that’s the freakiest dude I’ve ever seen. Was he born with one tooth? Lose his others in a bar brawl? Or from chewing too much tobacco? The important thing is that he brushes his one tooth every day. That’s what makes him odd, that he’s proud of it.”

The feedback was positive, says Fallon account director Lee Newman, who remarks of the graffiti, “We can’t imagine anyone thinks we intended it in a mean-spirited way.” But he did notice people drawing on the faces, and he thought that was great. “If you draw a mustache or Martian antennas,” he enthuses, “that only enhances the effect!”