My tour across the states has really been one big survey of American neon signs.
So the logical place to end this survey was in Times Square- possibly the most garish public space ever created. I already knew what it looked like during the day so I jumped on the subway early one morning to beat the crowds. When I got there I found a squad of black guys in red coveralls removing all the garbage deposited by the visitors the previous day. By night whatever is playing on biggest digital displays determines the colour of the square. The whole place flickers like a dark lounge room with the TV on.
What’s interesting about this place is that it’s pretty much the real life analogue of a dodgy porn site that brings up a ton of pop-ups. And the rationale is the same. It doesn’t matter what the context of the advert is, how obnoxious its presentation or how overwhelmed it is by the noise the premise is that if you’ve seen the advert then it has done its job.
Times Square has a sort of visceral appeal with thousands of digital displays all vying for your attention and switching from one brand to another in this big frenetic riot of consumerism. It’s not so different from watching fireworks over London or bombs over Baghdad. People are fascinated by the spectacle of it all and are happy to indulge it when’s it’s at saturation point in one centralised location far from where they live. But places like this are going to be less and less unique as the technology becomes ubiquitous. Really what Times Square represents is the natural end point for any public space once corporate entities are given free-reign.
Six years ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil the city’s Mayor, Gilberto Kassab, banned all outdoor advertising and brought in regulations to restrict the size of storefront displays. He treated outdoor billboards and posters simply as another form of pollution and, with a great deal of support from constituents, went about cleansing the city of its advertising.
It would would be nice to think that companies in other places would see that backlash as a consequence of saturation marketing and exercise more restraint. But the reality is that competition drives these companies to try to overwhelm one another in public spaces and that it’s only until the city streets look like like Times Square that people will realise what sort of an environment they have consented to.
There’s a nice little article on Sao Paulo’s experiment on AdBusters.