Advertisements and media campaigns invade our streets, our homes and our psyches every day, every hour and every minute. The amount of violent and exploitative advertising that we see has increased dramatically. How have we come to accept the merciless buyer-angled agendas of companies using any means possible, including visuals, music, smell and other sensual effects, to burrow into our thoughts and get our attention? With so much money being poured into advertising, littering our public spaces, I have become disheartened. I began to take pictures of the various advertisements I saw while in transit as a means to document and archive my experience and create a more tangible picture of our daily life and the impact advertisements have over us.
There are virtually no limits to where advertisements are placed these days, and I am particularly disturbed to see those of a violent and exploitative character in our buses and subways. Worse yet, transportation systems are being used as showrooms for the most diabolical kind of advertisement—alcohol—a troublesome and yet seductive menace to our society.
MTA & Submersion in Alcohol
The use of transportation systems in New York City is unavoidable, and alcohol advertisers, for example, know that well. They have infiltrated the MTA, leaving subway cars, buses and stations camouflaged with ads for drinking. There is something perverse about public space being employed to advertise an activity consumers are not even allowed to engage in publicly without using the guise of a brown bag.
Walking through Union Square at the beginning of April, I was surrounded by over a hundred Johnny Walker ads. The promotional images were carefully crafted and designed to illuminate the whisky bottle to stand out in a long subway hall like some kind of sacred object. The slick wall designs blend in to our commute with the clever message: “Keep walking. Your life will be upgraded”. Just about every single vertical beam and wall was covered by whisky ads. I don’t think anybody wants to see dozens of relentless, repetitive images of anything, especially not bottles of alcohol that have been fashioned to invade our psyches and minds with multiple subliminal messages all saying, “Drink it.”
Where Does It Stop?
When did such obscene incessant advertisement of alcohol become normal and acceptable? The images are often larger than life and overshadow the commuters. At times there are more ads than people in these so-called public spaces. I meticulously counted 124 Johnny Walker ads at Union Square, and there were less people in the corridors than Johnny Walker bottles. On previous occasions, I took pictures of other advertising campaigns in Union Square, where the entire subway entrance, including the steps and walls, was transformed by a SKY vodka ad. Prior to that campaign, the same steps, walls and beams flowed orange and green with a Simply Orange juice ad message imploring, “Take the fast train to fresh-squeezed taste.”
At other times, that same space was occupied by ads for Ketel One and Bacardi,
and there were times when every single turnstile vestibule, including the rotating bars (eye level with most children), was covered top to bottom with ads for ice tea or Heineken and wrap-around ads obscured vertical beams and pillars throughout the station. I couldn’t help but stop to take a few photos and pause for a moment to ask myself how the ads make me feel. I observed other people passing, some of them quickly looking at the ads distractedly, others trying to understand what it is all about, and others trying to focus inwardly on their thoughts, tuning out this visually noisy and unpleasant environment.
The Hijacked Commute
For many, the ads seem to go unnoticed because they have become desensitized to them. However, if you take a moment, you can’t help but see people gasping for an uninterrupted thought. In transit, we are in a sort of in between place, unoccupied and thus open to receiving stimuli from our surroundings. As commuters we try to regroup our thoughts and emotions in the middle of the noisy modern environment and stressful life of New York City. Instead of a chance for peace and quiet, these moments of down time are now co-opted by suggestions to buy things and consume drinks.
The subway is part of the daily lives of New Yorkers. If anything, it should be a place for art and culture that benefits the community and not a profit-centered market for products we don’t need in the least. Ironically, MTA stands for Metropolitan Transit Authority and the word “metropolitan” connotes free individuals and group interests before private.
I read somewhere that the placement of alcohol ads is timed using a pulsing method—a strategy to overload or saturate us with advertising until the message can no longer be effectively absorbed. The ads are then methodically taken down to give us a temporary reprieve. When the ad execs deem that it would be most compelling or influential and we seem ready to soak up more, the ads reappear.
I have documented times where most of the subways and stations are permeated primarily by alcohol ads and taxis feature the same ads redesigned to fit their VeriFone boards and TV screens. When we are not exposed to alcohol ads, we are brandished with less conglomerate and more informative small-business ads for skin experts, divorce and malpractice law, continuing education, religious congregations or cultural events. Then we have the standard fare of movie ads, usually if not always violent themed complete with vampires, cold-blooded killers and, naturally, robots and aliens. When our senses are sufficiently aerated, the alcohol ads come flooding back in.
Alcohol ads are, from the outset, poorly regulated by the discretions rule. The Federal Trade Commission recommends that improved guidelines and standards be put into place. The Commission relies on alcohol companies to self-regulate and not target youth through the placement or content of ads. Companies are expected to comply with the industry advertisement placement standard that at least 70% of the target audience be made up of adults older than 21. Alcohol advertisements are therefore not permitted within 500 feet of a residential area, school or pre-school, but the transit system somehow slips clear of this regulation, perhaps since it is not tethered to one place but crawls throughout the city.
Alcohol companies claim that their advertisements have not increased alcohol consumption or encouraged drinking in young people and that they are simply competing for a market space, but if this were the true, why would these companies spend billions of dollars a year on their ad campaigns?
Sublimating Minors & Brand Recognition
Research shows that advertisement may be responsible for up to 30% of adolescent alcohol use since it is made to appeal to children and adolescents using images of fun, sexy, successful people having a blast. 75% of fourth graders in the U.S. recognize the Budweiser brand. A national study shows that mass exposure to alcohol advertisements contributes to an increase in drinking behavior among America’s youth.
Pediatricians are encouraging alcohol industries to restrict advertising in venues where more than 10% of the audience is made up of children and adolescents versus the 30% mandated by current regulations. The mass transit system is not like a magazine or TV ad where we can turn the page or change the station. Instead, it delivers ads that are larger than children and are often placed next to a child’s head during their daily commute. During a 30-minute train ride, everything a child takes in is exciting and new. These subliminal messages can render under-aged commuters powerless as they explore and experience New York’s transit system. A study shows that each alcohol ad a young person sees before the age of 23 means a 1% higher chance that he or she will drink. For each additional dollar per capita spent on alcohol advertisement in a local market, young people drank 3% more.
Commercial Speech Protected by the First Amendment
In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment also applies to advertising, called “commercial speech”, emphasizing the importance of providing commercial “information” to the consumer. This gave way to a proliferation of mass images and an infinite amount of advertisements. While there is some merit in this ruling, free speech should not be considered a limitless right, and it should be noted that advertising can be misleading, and in some cases manipulative, which is particularly important when it is targeted to children.
Children, especially the very young, are not able to filter what they see the way adults do. A research study shows that most children cannot effectively understand and process advertisements until they are at least 12 years old. They are still absorbing information but not necessarily interpreting it as it was intended. Studies show that teenagers are more vulnerable than adults to advertising messages since the part of the brain that directs impulse control, risk-taking and maturity of judgment does not fully develop until adulthood. Advertising companies know this and use tactics and marketing specifically designed to trigger subconscious and emotional reactions. These tactics are misleading and should be regulated by measures such as the Central Hudson Test, which identifies marketing or advertising that is misinformational or deceptive.
Alcohol companies advertising in the subway are not simply (as they claim) competing for market space. They are creating a sense that their drink will make you desirable and associating it with a cool environment and beautiful people. Just as cigarette advertising contributes to an increase in smokers, alcohol advertising contributes to a higher use of alcohol. Each ad is carefully designed with multiple subliminal messages, enhanced by the choice of color, logo, slogan, placement, sequence, lighting, design and other mitigating factors.
New Yorkers need to use the subway daily with our families and children. It is a public space and not a specific medium that you choose to read, listen to or watch at particular time. In my belief, advertising in the MTA and taxis should not be protected by the First Amendment. Is it free speech to immerse citizens in products and services that they cannot escape? The subway has always had a culture of its own—commuters, performers, musicians, artists, young people congregating after school, people walking gathering their thoughts and feelings, and individuals and families going from point A to point B.
Mayer de Blasio said in a speech on April 10th that New York City has always been an example of a progressive metropolis, and he pointed out that New York is home to the Statue of Liberty. We are a metropolitan city that stands for justice, liberty and progress. However, our Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is an essential part of the city’s infrastructure, has become an exhibition space for alcohol ads.
All this left me wondering, what is the social and cultural price of advertising? Advertising is a means to create perpetual mass consumption. It is the private interest of a few pitted against public interest. It’s a monstrous vehicle of profit versus human values and our independent thoughts and feelings. And it is “free speech” versus the independent speech of free people.
How do we put standards in place for a healthy culture to support the cultural context, values and needs of its citizens while also protecting our youth, the most vulnerable citizens? How do we create regulations on what is dissent and what is acceptable in terms of the amount and content of advertisement?
Controversial ads, such as those of a political nature that insult a particular majority or group or those promoting breast implants, have raised enough eyebrows to merit being banned from the subway. Still, we have become immune to other advertisements that are the profit-driven ploys of big companies, often undermining the health of our society using ruthless strategies to infiltrate every minute of our lives. We are accepting their power over us. That situation needs to change.