Friday, October 5, 2007

Advertising Makes a Subway Car Surreal

On a recent trip aboard the subway shuttle between Grand Central Station and Times Square, I was transported to an alien environment of larger-than-life television stars and outer-space imagery inspired by the NBC series "Heroes." Blame it on the advertising strategies of the MTA.

The interior of the car--walls and ceilings--was decked out entirely to make me think of the show, which depicts our world in the aftermath of a solar eclipse that leaves ordinary people with extraordinary powers. On the ceiling was fiery outer space imagery. On the walls were a dark, handsome fellow with wavy hair and stubble on is chin; a blonde woman in sparking earings; and two intense-looking Asian men. Everywhwere slogans exhorted me to tune in: "New purpose." "New adventure." "New quest."

The all-ad car that I rode in is part of the "brand car" strategy adopted by the MTA and advertisers. Although the concept goes back to at least around 2001, according to the New York Sun, I'd never seen anything so all-encompassing on the Lexington Avenue line, which I ride regularly to work. There, the typical ads tout subway security, the virtues of education and English lessons.

Balancing the demands of big, lucrative clients and less-wealthy small businesses in subway advertising is an old dilemma. In a article published in 1997, the Times described how the MTA was then backtracking from a big-money ad strategy to seek ads from smaller businesses.

Out of such strategies came subway cars with a range of ads--some of them for businesses, some for public institutions. A trip on the IRT brought you face to face with Roach Motel, personal injury lawyers and the City University. These ads weren't always elegant, but their juxtaposition on the walls of a subway car always reminded me of the splendid cacaphony of New York. At the very least, they were good for a laugh. And the best of them--the short poems of the Poetry in Motion series, the biographical blurbs of City University students and faculty, and the AIDS awareness telenovela of Julio y Marisol--were interesting, even inspiring..

I don't pine for the days of subway graffiti, which I always saw as vandalism no better than scribbling in a library book.

But I do like to see my subway cars, like my fellow passengers, reflecting the diversity and energy of the city.

Getting off the shuttle, I checked to see if the car next to mine extolled "Heroes." Instead, it was devoted to the show "Journeyman;" The slogan inside the car read, "Time changes everything." Indeed.

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