This Is Your God: Orienteering by advertisements

Bonus points to anyone who can place this billboard…

Poster and billboard advertising is an acute way of judging the difference between two places. In the undecorated steel and glass of airports there can be few indicators to remind a traveller who has just arrived that they have even left their original location. One of the common and decisive indicators is a change in language or tone in the advertisements that are on display.

I remember landing in London for the first time and getting the tube into the city. At the first station three escalator journeys awaited, and on the tiled wall during the slow ascent there passed identical framed advertisements spaced a little apart from one another the whole way up. This deluge of small posters is not a rare sight in the London Underground, but it seemed unusual to me initially as it did not mirror any other metro or untergrundbahn that I had previously encountered.

Although a recent phenomenon, at least in terms of quantity, posters and billboards can be a key landmark in cities and towns. Even on a more local level, the standard of graphic design in an area can create a different atmosphere or sense from the “commercial street art” of posters and billboards. In terms of larger corporate companies, the use of strong locations (not always) and quirky advertising ideas that incorporate their surrounds are more key.

In the US the advertisements were striking in their difference in style and tone. From JFK Airport onward posters and billboards were everywhere, and most pounded home messages in bold type with brash images. Times Square in New York prides itself on outdoor advertising; there they have gone so far as to make it law to have advertisements on your building. The Times Square billboards are pushing themselves brighter and brighter to the point of garish intensity – the newest LED screens mark themselves out clearly from the others on the square by being bright enough to bathe the street in near daylight even at night.

One of the more flagrantly hilarious of the New York subway’s poster advertisements

On buses and subways in the States the advertising follows this pattern. Bold, brash text and chunky imagery with heavily saturated colours is the order of the day, and even the tag-lines are nearly demanding. From the point of view of someone who has never dealt with this intensity of advertising on a large scale I found that these posters and billboards were nearly as illegible as those in countries where I do not speak the language.

Posters and billboards had a heavy influence on late 20th and early 21st century art. Certainly the increased use of text and chic billboard-style imagery in postmodernist art reflects in some way the increase of outdoor advertising in the 20th century. In The Painted Word Tom Wolfe described the influence of advertising on painting as the break-down of representational art. In the early 21st century artists like Peter Fuss and Shepard Fairey have directly addressed the billboard idea, often using advertising styles to portray anti-advertising ideas. Fairey himself took influence from the John Carpenter’s They Live in his imitations of the subliminal messages that appear on billboards in the movie.

Sheppard Fairey speaking on his street art at Offset 2012

As billboard advertising is becoming increasingly transient, street art is being encouraged more as a popular decorative alternative. This again is something which can become an informative guide to help a traveller place themselves in the world. Although street artists move regularly, much graffiti (particularly by more amateur or outsider artists) is still written in languages and styles native to the place that it is located (the street art of Tsang Tsou Choi is a good example).

A Coca-cola advertisement from a bus stop in the Netherlands is written in English with the old school Americana design style that befits the company.

This is important when observed within the pattern is emerging in European billboards and posters that has seen English becoming the primary advertising language whether or not the country is English speaking or the area is tourist-heavy. English has become such a go-to language in Europe as it is more likely that natives and travellers to the country will speak the permeating language than any other. This is gently killing off billboards as signifiers of place, as the use of English also means foreign design styles are incorporated, moving toward a globalised system of advertising signage, at least in the European continent (France excluded!).

Times Square’s bright lights

Also, the printed format may be slowing production. Certainly the print industry is losing steam to the new technologies that are making it obsolete. Looking at the near-invasive intensity of Times Square, a Blade Runner-esque flashing video advertisement future is very possibly on the cards. It is not uncommon now to see flat-screen advertisements in small shops and cafes. This conversion may usher a new age of flat advertising that escapes the idea of printed form, and it will be interesting to see whether any of the cultural signifiers will continue, or even strengthen, with more use of video or interactive media.

At any rate, the use of public space for advertising will remain for the foreseeable. Whether we will still be able to recognise where we are in the world by looking at them is another question.

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