Lately I’ve noticed a proliferation of subway ads for cultural institutions such as, MoMA, The Whitney, BAM and Guggenheim in addition to ads for Broadway shows. Of course seeing ads for these New York destinations within the city should be expected, but as a native New Yorker, I don’t remember ever seeing the arts so heavily promoted on subway platforms. I must say these ads are a breath of fresh air from the usual movie, clothing, and liquor posters that are typically plastered beneath the city streets. The grim advertising market of 2008 and 2009 are probably responsible for them as well seeing how Titan Worldwide, an outdoor advertising company, has fallen $7.5 million short in ad sales and payments to the MTA. Titan’s chairman has even noted that advertising contracts with transit agencies like the MTA have never experienced such revenue loss (via: NYT).
If large companies are purchasing significantly less ads as the MTA faces a budget crisis, it makes sense for ad space to be available cheaply for organizations that do not usually have the funds for extensive campaigns. Facing declining ad sales, I would have expected the MTA to mimic the television industry by attempting to woo small businesses with lower rates. Last year, Snuggie commercials reached pop culture notoriety through repeated prime-time airings as many television networks offered record low ad rates. With this in mind, I figured ads for cheap legal counsel, ESL schools, and dermatologists would once again be on display.
In 1997, the MTA began seeking larger, more profitable accounts and limited the banner space available to smaller businesses in addition to significantly increasing ad prices (via: NYT). This past summer, the MTA sold the naming rights of the Atlantic Avenue, Pacific Street and Flatbush Avenue subway stations to bank giant, Barclays, so it’s still very interested in partnering with lucrative companies. In 1996, the MTA generated $23 million in ad revenue compared to the estimated $110 million it generated during 2008 (via: Second Ave. Sagas). Suffice it to say, the dynamic of the city has changed considerably over the past 13 years. Neighborhoods have undergone dramatic gentrification, advertising became more invasive, iPods became the commuter’s accessory of choice and amidst rising gas prices and “go green” rhetoric, riding the subway became a smart, economic and environmental activity.
With some brands steering away from traditional marketing and seeking to create immersive experiences by advertising throughout entire cars and stations, it can be argued that the subway can exude a dry, corporate feel. Granted that’s better than just being overwhelmed by grime, putrid smells and rats, but the MTA needs to keep in mind that the subway is a public space. I appreciate the MTA’s “Arts For Transit” program, which commissions artists to create dynamic installations and murals in stations, and think these sort of initiatives enhance the commuting experience. Perhaps the “Arts For Transit” is another factor behind the system-wide increase in cultural ads, as I’m certain the program encourages a demand for such ads.
When I first saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater ad, (top of post) I was reminded of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. I relish seeing ads for museums and plays on a daily basis. We often become so involved in work, school, technology, or a monotonous routine, that we forget to seek out art, creativity, culture and inspiration. These ads are a great reminder of what the city has to offer and what New Yorkers often take for granted.