Thursday, July 9, 2009

Advertising Taking Over Transit/Commons

A few weeks ago, NYT reported that NYC’s transit authority was selling the naming rights for a Brooklyn subway station to Barclay’s Bank. This is the latest example of increasingly aggressive advertising through public transit and another assault on the commons.

As a widely shared service that New Yorkers and tourists rely on, public transit is certainly essential to a commons-based society. But in most cities, transit systems are cash-strapped and struggling to maintain services. In the midst of these financial troubles, cities have turned to generating revenues through ever more intrusive advertising schemes. The short-term income generated by the corporate re-branding of massive infrastructure systems seems like a pretty cheap sale when one considers that generations of tax-payers made the transit systems what they are today.

This trend is not new, and the opposition from advocates has been growing. In 2005, David Bollier, editor of, wrote about how advertising in the nation’s subway systems is part of a strategy of reducing a ‘lively commons to a mere market.’ The concern is not just an academic preoccupation with the “intersection between public and private space,” as the NYT article put it. People are sick of being bombarded with corporate messages in these formerly public spaces; public opinion polls find that most Americans think billboards are ugly, intrusive, and uninformative. Urban commuters aren’t just exposed to traditional printed billboards and signs anymore. Companies are now using digital ads mounted on the sides of busses and inside of subway tunnels, and wrapping stations in advertisements from a single company. For New Yorkers it’s an explosion of Times Square-style takeover of all of our subways.

Fed-up artists and activists have taken action. Public Ad Campaign posts commentary critiquing outdoor and transit advertising in New York, and tracks artists’ efforts to reclaim public spaces, whether by installing (unauthorized) art in the place of advertisements, or painting over posters and ads illegally posted across the city. Another organization, the Anti Advertising Agency, developed stencils and stickers saying “you don’t need it” for artist-activists to cover advertisements peddling consumerism.

While some may debate whether graffiti artists just add to the visual assault of advertising or help us question the marketization of our common spaces, the fact that our collective investment in transit and the commons is increasingly covered in advertising is proof of the attack on government and taxes by conservatives. Grover Nordquist’s wish to ‘shrink government down’ has gotten us to the point of government having to turn to corporate advertisers as ‘saviors.’

It’s time to reverse course and renew the commons.

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