The New York City Subway System

 

The urban landscape can be perceived as being defined by coded advertising. On a daily basis, we are constantly ingesting and regurgitating code. We speak to one another in mutually comprehensible phrases that are imbued with meaning. Mobile phones provide us with data which is recognized in a variety of languages. We have become one with cards that read our fortunes through a magnetic piece bonded with plastic, bringing bank balances into focus instantaneously. Our lives involve a consistent intake of signs and symbols that result in ongoing interchange; visually, orally, audibly. Billboards and LED displays skillfully designed for public consumption compete for a moment’s attention, the blink of an eye, the shutter that generates from the phone’s camera lens. We are passive and, often, neutral receptors in the streets, processing (again, perhaps ingesting and regurgitating) advertising art and copy through our senses nearly everywhere we walk; spectators to a significant creative effort that can often go unrecognized.

 

The New York City subway system is home to many an advertisement, and has been for several decades.  On the subway, in particular when riding alone, we are suspended in a moment of stillness.  Even while engaged in other activities such as reading a paperback, newspaper, or e book or while being jacked into the audio stream of one’s mobile device, our eyes may linger on one advertisement or flit through the rectilinear ads lining the upper walls of subway cars or the square boards promoting a product at eye level.  Formerly the domain of posters for acne treatments, community colleges, and beer, the subway has been reinvigorated as a locus for upscale promotion, now featuring campaigns for airlines, e readers, liqueurs, and placards highlighting the caliber and achievements of the professors of the City University of New York.  While on the subway, while seated or standing, we catch a glimpse of banner ads now often taking up the entire side of a car, providing consistent messaging.  Whether for art exhibitions, domestic travel with JetBlue and international travel through Delta, Windows notebooks, online stores providing pet supplies, or other products, most campaigns key into ways in which one could spend one’s time away from work.  In fact, an ad for Manhattan Mini Storage reads “Storage So Close You’ll Still Make It to Brunch on Time,” placing an emphasis on the leisurely portions of one’s life.  It is not all for commerce while riding the rails, however, as evidenced by the MTA’s celebrated Arts for Transit program, featuring the Poetry in Motion and Art Card series.

 

Subway Turnstiles 

 

There are other ways in which the words and images can get to you, even if only for an instant.  Once contained inside subway cars, advertising displays are now also often found on a car’s exterior for additional visibility.  Subway turnstiles are now frequently covered with promotions for a variety of items from Heineken to upcoming network and cable television programs.  Such interactions render us all spectators in a branded landscape.  Through our eyes, through our ears, our attention is intentionally drawn to advertising, whether when moving through city streets or sitting in front of one’s television, by sound, speech, color, and light. 

 

Marketers are integral to the success of these momentary interchanges of time and space, contributing to the sourcing, spreading, and divulging of content for objects available for purchase.  Like attending an international conference where multilingual headsets are available, a marketer’s effort is to know one’s demographic, even where cultural moirés are in flux.  As cities have grown to more broadly encompass people differing in ethnicity, language, and even age, so have the efforts of marketing agencies.  With time, the former television spokesperson say, for instance, in the 1950s, dedicated to selling a single product during a single thirty minute or sixty minute program subsidized by a single sponsor on black and white TV has evolved to keep pace with viewers’ current capacity to take in multilinear data spurts in a thirty second span.  It is commonplace for television networks to retain multiple advertisers per program and, during events such as the Super Bowl, for the advertisements to be viewed as an event worth watching in itself.  Along with this uptick in data processing comes a much more direct yet subtle form of participation: the experiential marketer’s spokesperson, an individual or group of individuals who can join you as you walk through the streets or during your Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings out.

 

Experiential marketing utilizes personalized interaction as a potential catalyst for an eventual economic transaction.  This intention can be achieved in an ever expanding number of ways, each involving forethought, creativity, and most notably, interactivity.  Perhaps most commonly recognized is the street “salesperson” who hands out samples, an individual who may in fact be an actor or an artist taking on the role of pitchperson as a paying job to support him or herself.  In other ways, it may be an entertaining ad on the internet or staged interactions at parties or other gatherings.  In utilizing such methods, with the goal of gaining the viewer’s attention for a period of time, however brief, spectacle becomes paramount.  For advertisers and marketers, distinguishing one brand of toothpaste or nail polish or soda or sneakers from all others becomes an ongoing, creative effort to impart memorability. 

 

In “The Gamer’s Dilemma,” a recent online commercial for Energizer batteries created by Disposable Television for Fox Interactive Media, viewers take part in a “game” modeled after the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books.  In the book series, the plots typically involve scenarios which lead to a turning point in the text.  At such a point, the reader is asked to select one of several possible outcomes.  Depending on the choice selected, the book plots lead to either further adventures, or to an abrupt ending.  The climax of the Energizer ad is truly interactive, as there are choices that the viewer is allowed to make which affect the outcome of the commercial; bringing the format of the Choose Your Own Adventure books into the realm of an interactive video microsite.

 

Since public interaction is integral to experiential marketing, there are many who can report such experiences.  For instance, one summer a friend and I were walking north along Broadway in Greenwich Village.  As we crossed West 4th Street, an intersection currently occupied by French Connection, Duane Reade drug store, an NYU campus building, and the MLB Fan Cave, itself a den of interactivity (and formerly the site of Tower Records) we were approached by a man handing out samples of a product.  We stopped to speak with him and asked what he was offering, though we could have kept walking and ignored him.  From our conversation, we learned that he was handing out tooth whitening strips.  My friend, who had used such a product before, took one of the proffered samples.  I declined.  A memorable experience?  Perhaps not.  But afterwards, my friend and I walked north along Broadway discussing the benefits and detractions of using the product.  Through the product’s “representative,” a likely temporary position, tooth whitening strips had become part of our social discourse.  His role was effective in that it generated interest in the product and due to the fact that my friend, who had previously purchased similar products, may have looked towards purchasing that particular brand of whitener offered to her for free. 

 

In Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending, authors Andrew Bennett and Ann O’Reilly discuss how consumers relate to brands and to spending following the economic crisis which began in 2008.  Much of the content of their book is based on a survey conducted by Euro RSCG in 2009 which gleaned data on the purchasing trends of consumers.  Entitled the New Consumer Study, information was gathered from consumers in Brazil, China, France, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  Responses to questions asked in the survey included: “I am using coupons and/or seeking out other discounts more often than I used to,” “Buying locally produced goods is easier on the environment,” “I would rather give my money to small businesses than large corporations,” and “The recession has served to remind people of what’s really important in life — and that’s a good thing.” 

 

Bennett and O’Reilly also cite several examples of experiential marketing solutions provided by brands including Timberland and Harley-Davidson, both of which zeroed in on their demographic to create interactive events that would generate interest and, potentially, yield additional sales by “facilitating interaction among customers.”  Another example relayed in their text includes a New Year’s Eve campaign for Duracell batteries.  In 2009, Duracell set up a Smart Power Lab in Times Square, where visitors were invited to “jump on a pedaling machine and contribute their muscle power to light up the iconic crystal ball, which drops at midnight.  No fewer than 300,000 participants enthusiastically pedaled…” Here, the boundaries of brand, social enjoyment, and interactive experience are seamlessly blurred.  This example also demonstrates how marketers, through such interchanges, provide a degree of influence on how and where you may wish to spend your leisure time. 

 

When thinking of the importance of branding, Bennett and O’Reilly posit that “… brands are far more than the collective products and services sold under their names.  Managed intelligently, they are living and ever-evolving entities that exist alongside consumers, communicating with them, learning from them — or, ideally, advancing slightly ahead of them… Until the advent of modern retailing and marketing, most goods were commodities, not brands.  People bought cow’s milk; they did not choose from among Borden and Dean’s, Horizon and Organic Valley.  Milk was milk.” 

 

Branding provides us with a datalink through words and images.  Words alone can connote meaning, with their verbal identity so strong that individuals can conjure a picture of the product: such as the brands of Levi’s, Nike, or Starbucks, for instance.  Technology giant IBM was known for its single word motto, “THINK,” created by Thomas J. Watson, Sr. for another corporate entity in the 1910s.  The logo took hold at IBM in the 1930s, where Watson was Chairman, and became the title of the company’s employee newsletter.  During the 1950s, advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach created a print ad for the Volkswagen Beetle entitled simply “Think small,” touting the German car’s novel size and shape as an alternative to large car manufacturers in the United States.  The simplicity of the headline was in alignment with the manufacture of the car, which featured a plain, functional interior.  The print ad, which features a white page as background, graphically positions the car as a small figure in the upper left quadrant of the page.  With copy stating “Our little car isn’t so much of a novelty anymore… using five pints of oil instead of five quarts… once you get used to some of our economies, you don’t even think about them…” the car promotions positioned the vehicle as a champion of economic thrift.  The Volkswagen brand has since become part of the American lexicon, and now has designed many other car models than its VW Bug.

 

Wordplay can be an effective tool in advertising.  In the 1990s, Apple commissioned a well known advertising campaign simply called “Think Different,” a direct play on IBM’s THINK logo.  Created by the Los Angeles office of TBWA\Chiat\Day, the Apple print and television advertisements featured renowned figures including Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham, and Muhammad Ali.  The print ads simply featured a photo and the now iconic Apple logo, anchored by the words “Think different.” The television ads included the copy “Here’s to the crazy ones.  The troublemakers.  The rebels…” The campaign carried through the unique mix of simplicity, style, and sophistication which launched Apple to the upper echelons of product development in the 21st Century, setting it apart from PC makers. 

 

In relation to sales, the construction of relationships between people and brands can be of critical import.  Relationships are furthered through experiential marketing, where the development of a character provides a pathway to consumer engagement.  The purchase of a product can, at times, be due to identification with a particular character or figure utilized in its promotion.  Characters are often built into products, as has been seen with televised advertisements for car insurance.  Flo, the salesperson for Progressive car insurance, and anthropomorphized figures such as the Geico gecko allow advertisers to build a running narrative based on the varied and fictionalized interactions of each character.  Each of these ad campaigns has proven successful enough to last for several years.  For those choosing such insurance, some purchasers may have based their selection on their enjoyment of the company’s advertisements.  In such cases, it is an initial emotional reaction which serves as the impetus towards making an important financial decision.  

 

Branding through relationships provides advertisers with a potential outlet for storytelling.  As observers, we are drawn into a world where an almost choreographic form of interaction is slowly and subtly filtered into our real time constructs.  As individuals, while immersed in a branded landscape, we have the choice to perceive, embrace, react, and respond to such information.  Through our actions, we choose to let certain brands into our sphere of existence, while keeping others out of our lives.  The varied market choices ensure that, in some way, we will repeatedly engage with things that either meet or fail to meet our liking.  Experiential marketing brings the show of products directly to us, a display that is difficult to ignore.  Whether ensconced in a carefully crafted campaign, or simply put forth as a direct handout on city sidewalks, the data stream continually flows around us; even while our eyes and ears may remain set on neutral.  And it is generated by a changing group of people who have best been able to tap into our needs and, further still, our wants.  Whether individual campaigns are successful or not, there is a creative outlet that, over the duration of a product’s life, yields success.

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