When TfL announced that Canada Water station was to be dubbed ‘Buxton Water’ for Marathon Day we witnessed one of the most shameless advances towards total commercialisation in the history of London Transport. On the day of the competition travelers were treated to the supreme loss of dignity brought by the newly destabilised status of London areas, that are evidently just as marketable as any billboard or banner space. Unfortunately, this blatant and celebrated act of selling-short is very much in line with a series of degrading visual invasions that belongs to what we might call TfLs ‘marketing epiphany’, evidenced in the brute exploitation of space they own. There is something peculiar to the recent uses of space on London Transport that makes it acutely intrusive and shamelessly self-justifying; a particular kind of advertising that relies on specific environmental builds and the common emotional mindsets we attribute to them.
To understand this we should ask a basic question. What is it about the Underground that makes it such an ideal, and effective (in marketing terms), place to advertise? Firstly, it is inescapable. For better or worse anyone wanting anything to do with the city will spend a decent amount of time tunneling around it. London is a well connected city, and because it does not have competing inner transport services (such as in Oxford), the single body that TfL provides is more than adequate. However since the increasing privatisation of public transport TfL have come to view their monopoly of space as more of a marketing opportunity than anything else. Because the Underground is as open to Londoners as it is to the market, we must share our space with advertisers – but the space we share is now falling out of proportion to them. Following this is the fact that the Underground is an area of transience. With this transience comes the assumption that the customers of TfL are helpless to preoccupation, distraction and boredom during their journeys. This gives TfL and its marketing bedfellows a monopoly of time as well as space – time that is spent idly and in need of filling.
Both these facts of the nature of the Underground have been addressed directly in recent advertisements. The ‘Nest’ energy control system. for example, directly appeals to those who have ‘a few minutes to kill’ before their train arrives, providing several different readings of their spiel to viewers with differing waiting times. Elsewhere, adverts for ‘Scottish Widows’ investments and pensions implore idle train-waiters to seize the day and make revolutionary changes to their lives. The acceptance of transient spaces as spaces of boredom demonstrates a grand lack of imagination from TfL, especially where alternatives to advertising have been explored already. Just some examples include the Paolozzi designs for Tottenham Court Road, the Egyptian motifs at Holborn, the woodcut prints at Charing Cross and Tod Hanson’s giant design for Haggerston Overground. These artistic engagements form a playful dialogue with the areas they are in and make way for freedom of thought during travel and the examples that do exist encourage this very well. However for each example of artwork on the Underground there must be tenfold the amount of advertising that litters visual space.
The recognition of plentiful space has far more obvious consequences, especially for those that may pride themselves on being able to bypass advertising content. It is here that adverts spill out of their frames and onto the walls, out of the tiles and onto the ceiling creating a truly lived-in and inescapable form of marketing. Examples can be seen at several stations currently. Old Street has been treated to a makeover courtesy of Desperados – loud yellow and green stickers plaster the escalators and tunnels, flying bottles tell us to ‘Stay Greasy’ the entire time. Covent Garden likewise has its tunnels leading to the lifts coated in full-perspective posters celebrating the opening of a Reebok ‘Fit Hub’. Finally, at Highbury and Islington it is difficult to remember that TfL was ever publicly owned as Smirnoff smear themselves over every possible tunnel and escalator frame.
Though we might be sadly familiar with repetition on the tube, this method takes visual pollution to new heights by forcing it upon you at all angles. It is nothing less than structural and immersive advertising that has its sole aim in placing you in the advert – and because we are inside the advert we are more than viewers, we almost inhabit it. In some cases we inhabit the advert as much as we inhabit the tunnels, as if to push ones status of traveller as close to that of consumer as possible. This transformation should alert us all to blindingly real neoliberal view of public services and public spaces. Taking London Underground as just one example we can see how TfL has worked with the market to strategically transform a space to the aims of advertising. It doesn’t take long to see how this model of thinking has been applied elsewhere – social housing, for instance, has since Thatcher erupted as an entirely new housing market that is merely ‘latent’ when it is socially rented. Transport is no longer latent as a service – it is active, truly utilised, as another arm of the market.
Less abstract and broad islands of thought can also be pinpointed in regard to immersive advertising – we can also read into attitudes to the advertising industry itself. The advertisements at Old Street, Covent Garden, and many more seem to see themselves as installations – making some kind of artistic gesture that aims to work cooperatively with travelling space. This ability for the advert to view itself as an artwork isn’t exclusive to immersive advertising, and it is no new revelation that the industry has long been feeding off the art world – but this absurd belief seems to have driven the spread of advertising images out from their designated frames and into the living and transitory spaces that was once reserved for the purely expressive or decorative. It is in this drive to colonise visual space that we can read the retroactive but relentless belief that advertising enhances an experience of transport, linked to the equally poisonous idea that advertising is saviour to the ‘creative industry’, and thus a valuable part of our culture. Marketeers are no longer satisfied on our witnessing of adverts, we must now interact and live in them. However there is still a choice when it comes to how to interact with them – we always have been able to, and still can, tear them down.
by Theo Alexander