The Ads Are In the Air

In case you were wondering, the answer is no; nothing is sacred anymore. At least not to advertisers. A Dutch company called Geotronics recently launched a re-branding campaign by staging a full-blown musical number in the busy concourse of a train station in Utrecht. While there are plenty of ways to read this (the least entertaining of which is not that we'll finally have an answer for people who say musicals are unrealistic because "no one bursts into song and dance routines in real life"), it seems to set a troubling precedent. Long since unsatisfied by innumerable billboards and neon signs, advertisers have been aggressively acquiring pieces of the cityscape (ceilings, stairs, escalators, trees, sidewalks, benches, busses, etc.) over the past few decades. With this latest move, it seems, even the physical space -- the very air around us -- is fair game for splashy advertisements.

Observe above: an image of Charing Cross Station in London. Below, the same image with green filters highlighting existing advertisements:

Here, as in most contemporary public and quasi-public spaces, people are bombarded with ads for food, real estate, toiletries, and events. The advertising has become so ubiquitous, that it seems abnormal to pass through an urban space without ads on every flat surface (think back to the media bonanza in late 2006 when São Paulo banned all outdoor ads). And now, we can't even count on the people we're sitting next to, or the janitor sweeping up litter a few yards away, not to be a part of some grandiose sales pitch just waiting to erupt. The advertisement space in public spaces starts to look a bit more like this:

There's a fundamental problem with being told by your environment that you are merely a consumer. Yes, we are consumers living in a capitalist society, and I don't intend to argue the merit or value of that. But there is something to be said for maintaining the dignity of public space, and keeping some places free of advertisements. If we merely see each other as fellow consumers we are, in an odd way, pitted against each other. I have to buy what you can't buy if I want to feel successful. Ads do nothing to reinforce the fundamental building blocks of any harmonious human settlement: community, interdependence, and civic engagement. Those are the values that public spaces should strive to promote.

But what's the big deal with the Geotronics musical performance ad, you may be asking? If we are already bombarded by ads everywhere we go, what's the difference adding the occasional flash-mob-esque song and dance routine hawking toothpaste or the newest Barbie doll? It might even be fun -- certainly moreso than any billboard. But advertising has a way of growing, cancer-like, taking over new nooks and crannies without us noticing. In some cities, storefronts are now more profitable with windows boarded up to shoulder more posters and billboards.

Jump ahead a decade or two, to when these performance ads have become more commonplace. What happens when civic officials see more value in a park as a place for elaborate performance ads? Just imagine your city's parks, transit stations, and civic plazas as dozens or even hundreds of little Disneylands. And what would a child who grows up riding the Citibank Train to Coca Cola Park instead of just 'the local playground' think of the city once they were grown? The only value a place has once it's been bought is what the company that bought it was willing to pay for it.

(Original photo from Flickr user annabelb. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

1 comment:

bk said...

More and more, I am reminded of the outrageous ads in movies like "Back to the Future 2" and "Bladerunner." At the time they were made, the movies meant to poke fun, but as you've pointed out, these ads have become completely invasive.
Thanks for a great article.