We Tried To Pay Attention To Every NYC Ad And It Was Eye-Opening
Have you ever found yourself standing in the middle of Times Square…for an hour…amidst tourists and performers and a million smells…while taxis honk and children scream…and just…looked around?
Probably not. It’s an insane thing to do, and an easy way to raise your blood pressure. But if you did, you’d notice a whole lot of something you’re faced with every day — something New Yorkers in particular are unable to escape: ads. They’re everywhere.
Full disclosure — we work in advertising. So, to bring a new perspective to our job duties as consumers of ads rather than just makers, we challenged ourselves to observe ads everywhere we went in New York. For two weeks straight, we paid close attention to signs, billboards, and displays that most would only ever notice accidentally. And when we reflected on what we saw, we learned some pretty cool things about the art of advertising — and gained some perspective on the city we call home.
Fact: 5.8 million (!) people ride the New York City subways every day, including us. During our commutes, we saw an insane range of ad subjects, and we began to think critically about not just what we were seeing, but why.
Tory: My usual station is small and remote, so I was surprised to see a mix of frequently updated ads, including an upcoming museum exhibit, music festival, and musical show.
Casey: The first thing I saw was, I kid you not, an ad for breast cancer screenings right next to an ad for breast augmentation. Now that’s just weird, and seems wrong, but I doubt I’d have ever noticed it if it weren’t for this project.
Tory: The ads on my way to work were eclectic, too, but I would say they all fit into the “life hack” category. New Yorkers definitely like things made easy for them. Interestingly, it’s an express train that gets you places quicker and easier, and the ads are focused on making life tasks quicker and easier. Maybe not a coincidence?
Casey: Definitely not! Make it easy on me, New York!
Tory: At one point, I noticed an entire row of ads for a mattress company designed as a comic strip with funny illustrations and puns. I actually pushed past people so I could walk down the subway car and see all of them! And then, there was the gym ad that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t decided to sit down.
Tory: Clever, very clever. Think I’ll be standing from now on.
Tory: The station where we get off for work is a major one. During the first week, there was a series of tourism ads for a Southern city. And they were glorious: parties, food, musicians, palm trees…certainly made me want to hop on a plane and take a vacay instead of trudging through a hot subway station to work!
Casey: Oh my god, the Bloody Mary on that ad looked SO GOOD! It was borderline cruel.
Tory: But then those beautiful ads were gone. Clothes were a totally inferior replacement.
Casey: It was tragic.
- Culture and entertainment are crucial to the fabric of the city
- With ads, placement and visibility is everything
There’s nothing quite like taking an afternoon to wander around a NYC neighborhood you think you’re familiar with, only to discover a cute new block or an inviting restaurant for your next date night…or realizing that a gorgeous mural covering the entire side of a six-story building is actually an ad for a wireless speaker.
We texted each other nonstop during our daily wanderings, obviously.
Tory: That happened to me while I was wandering through SoHo in search of a dress for my bridal shower (help, btw). I saw several beautifully painted (ad) murals, actually.
Casey: YES! I only saw huge movie posters, though. Entertainment strikes again!
Tory: I also noticed how ads in SoHo are clearly targeting a certain demographic. Designer clothing, travel, music, home decor, healthy (and overpriced) beverages, a church that offers online services you can watch from the comfort of your living room on Sunday mornings…
Casey: Well, like you were saying with the “life hack” nature of ads — here’s a service that wants to make your life easier while connecting to you. It’s like food delivery but with worship.
During our ventures around the city, we spent a lot of time paying close attention to cabs due to the ads that sit atop them. Taxi-top ads were first introduced to NYC by an advertising exec in 1975, and nowadays, you rarely see a yellow cab without one.
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Over half of the 118 cabs we saw had an ad for a movie, TV show, musical or play, or other form of live entertainment. And we were not at all surprised that food and drink was the third-biggest category, behind online services. (Those are basically what our entire social lives as New Yorkers consist of, tbh.)
When we felt we’d seen enough tax ads, we made our way to Times Square, the part of NYC that, in a way, literally screams advertising. There are loud, flashing lights everywhere, and the billboards are absolutely gigantic.
In fact, we learned two insane facts: (a) The amount of power required to keep the Theater District (which Times Square is a part of) aglow is enough electricity to power 161,000 homes in America, and two times as much as is needed to keep all the casinos in Vegas running, and (b) One of the biggest billboards in the area “has more than 15,000 square feet of screen space,” i.e., roughly the same as 19 average one-bedroom apartments. (LOL)
The most fascinating ad we noticed there was actually on our way out. It was a small billboard for a fancy liquor, plastered on what was probably the 30th floor of a building, off to the side and far above the rest of the Times Square mayhem. To us, it was clearly saying “We’re not big or flashy, but we’re better than you, Times Square.” Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “high-end,” doesn’t it?
- Advertising really can be art
- Again, placement = everything
- Entertainment dominates taxi-top ads, likely due to the frequency with which they travel up and down Broadway
- Times Square is an advertising BEAST
In the barrage of ads we saw throughout the two weeks, there were a few that truly deserve some shoutouts. Whether they made us want to buy the product, left us feeling weirded out, or just downright impressed us, these gems cut straight through the clutter.
(Drum roll, please…)
Tory: The one for an ice cream brand, with a delectable-looking scoop of cool, chocolate goodness, plastered right over the entrance to a subway stop whose sweaty, summer depths I was about to descend into. I decided I could be a few minutes late to an appointment and bought an ice cream cone instead.
Casey: This award goes to the linens. Every time I saw that ad, I got to thinking about my own bedding, and then got to thinking about getting myself some new bedding, and, well…advertising. She works.
Tory: I saw one for a music-streaming service, where on one side a girl was jumping into a black hole, and on the other side a guy was peeking over a huge red barrier into a starry sky. It was funky and geometric, and I had no idea what any of it meant.
Casey: I kept seeing an ad on the back of buses for a driving service looking for new drivers. The placement makes sense — of course anyone driving behind a bus will see it — but it caught me off guard every time. An ad targeting drivers…on the back of a city bus…but the driving service isn’t a service provided by the city like the bus is…woof. It threw me into a tailspin.
Tory: Definitely the ones for an NYC real estate website. They all have incredibly intricate illustrations of New Yorkers and their neighborhoods, and they’re funny and clever and just frankly GOOD. ADVERTISING.
Casey: Same. I love those!
Thanks for the memories, NYC ads. You were far more intriguing (and enlightening) than we expected. We can’t promise we’ll continue to pay as rapt attention to you as we did these past two weeks, but one thing is for sure: We’re done flat-out ignoring you. You’ve got way too much to say about this city and all the fine people in it. Including…us. 🙂
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Design by James Devogelear for © BuzzFeed.
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