commuter culture: advertising for the moving masses

Commuter Culture: Advertising for the Moving Masses
            Everyday millions of commuters spend time traveling together, all reaching different destinations. Clusters of New York subway riders fill the undergrounds. Los Angeles highway drivers travel alongside each other streaming the highway. All the while, these commuters are taking in endless advertisements, targeted specifically at them, the everyday commuter. Self-reflexivity is a major theme within this stream of media because of the advertisers conscious act of advertising about the everyday commuter to the commuter (Goldman and Papson, 110). The following essay will examine commuter culture: the subway system in New York City will be evaluated according to the demographic that most populates this type of transportation and the advertisements produced as a result. In contrast, Los Angeles’ highway culture and its demographic will be focused on and the advertisements targeting highway commuter culture. In both areas, issues of economic status, products, the environment and space will all be discussed. Advertisements that are not just in print, but are in motion, the market is continually moving. John Berger in Ways of Seeing, (1972) explain the boundaries of space and advertising perfectly, “The entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise of the good life. The world smiles at us. It offers itself to us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same.(Schor and Holt, 137).  Capitalism will take any venue possible to reach a market.  Commuter culture is a specific target of advertisement campaigns that are inescapable by the masses of commuters that travel everyday, whether they like it or not.             New York is the most populous city in the United States, and the most densely populated major city in North America. New York has been called ‘the city that never sleeps’ because of its fast paced commuters. The subway system in New York has a variety of commuters from different demographics: the everyday traveling business class who enjoys the convenience of subway travel, the environmentally conscious commuter, trying to help make the world greener and, students who gain their independence and freedom through the daily commute with friends. People also use the subway because it is far cheaper way to travel across the city, by spending no money on gas and parking. New York is an advertising melting pot and what better way to reach those consumers than the underground subway catering to millions of commuters daily. However, the subway commuter has a reputation of being of lesser socio economic status (Allen, 93). The transition from light to dark as one enters the underground, brings on a depressing aura of lower class masses. The book, Highway Robbery Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity discusses race as a fundamental exclusion of transportation. It looks at racism within transportation. From the planning of highways, to the statistics of different races that use different modes of transportation, all is connected to race. Transportation issues continue to be a concern especially to those of low-income situations. There is a strong misconception characterizing the subway with poverty, antagonism to progress, rural living and the denial of beauty (Schor and Holt, 398). It is important to acknowledge these misconceptions so we can move beyond them.  Discrimination still places an extra “tax’ on poor people and people of color who need safe, affordable and accessible public transportation (Bullard, Johnson, Torres, 8). It is still generally assumed that one is of lower class if they ride the subway everyday.
            Advertisements targeted at the everyday subway commuter in New York are faced with advertisements of two specific areas: advertisements of services for those of lower economic status and public notices. In some stations of the New York Subway system there are ‘Commuter Channels’ designed specially to run on a cycle, targeting subway consumers. The messages are delivered to waiting- rapid transit passengers (Gripsrud and Ovalle, 203). Making it evident that ‘Capitalism will stop at nothing’ to reach its market and to make a profit.
            Advertisements that take up most of the walls within a train are targeted at lower income commuters. Banners reading: ‘Get out of Debt Now’, ‘Are you pregnant?’ and ‘Gambling and Addiction Help services’, are all targeting a specific lower class socio economic demographic.
            Public notice banners in trains by companies and foundations
, they are usually there to inform the commuter. A great example of this is the creative poster targeting those who travel with earphones [see Figure 1]. The campaign launched by NSW Police in Australia to raise awareness of the number of teenagers dying as a result of listening to iPods while they cross the road. Promoting commuter safety. 
            Pepsi launched their 2009 campaign this year and made a significant change to their logo [see Figure 6]
.  The new circle resembles Barack Obama’s “O” from his recent presidential campaign. The advertisements currently dominate the subway of New York, with phrases such as “Yes You Can”, “Hope”, “Optimism” and “Happy 2009”. These sayings are very up lifting, especially given the present recession. They also reflect President Obama’s urge for a refreshing change. Getting the support of democrats most likely off the get go. The advertisements may alienate attentive Republicans, but Pepsi is staying true to their target market of the “next generation”, unlike Coke who boasts the ‘traditional’. Pepsi was smart in taking a President who is ‘for the people’, who would never endorse a product himself because of his position; and using his message to reach everyday subway commuters, who given their demographic, probably voted for Obama.
            There is an immense amount of creativity that goes into some advertisements for subway commuters
. For example Sony [see Figure 2] uses the New York subway map to advertise the Walkman and its commuter friendliness. Another extremely creative advertisement falls under the public awareness category [see Figure 3]. To raise awareness around World First Aid Day, ad agency Downtown Partners placed life size realistic decals of a person at the bottom stairwells in Cineplex Odeon Theatres in Toronto. At first, the decal generates the impression that someone is lying down unconscious and needs help, but as you get closer, you'll realize it's just a picture on the floor with a call to action to visit for a first aid training course. Not only are there creative advertisements but artists are appropriating city-language like graffiti, tags or logos and brands in their art works, representing them on canvas, as well as in performance, using the city as a stage for performing artworks in situations, moving through it, making events or just leaving something. In such ways, the city and the artistic gesture melt together.
            A specific genre of design has been established as a result of the masses of commuters that travel each day. The underground subway is an ideal forum for displaying messages; advertisers realized this and now artists are on board getting their message out. From the beginning, New York in the late 1860s and the construction of underground railways when pillars for tracks and risers for stairways went up, they were slathered in paper and paste (Gudis, 12). Graffiti has sprawled along the trains and underground subway walls since they were first built. Now, a more calculated version of art installation has stemmed, artists creating pieces with a more meaningful message. Local Montreal designer Evan Taurins describes his latest subway art project situated in a subway stairwell. A fox’s den is the inspiration, with a colorful fox’s tail flowing out the doorway and up the stairs. It provides an intimate, warm retreat from the hectic chaos of the busy city streets. It takes on the issue of environmentalism; the expansive city boundaries leaving little natural habitat for animals. “The historical result of organizing nature to support the commodity system has degraded nature as a space in which signs of the authentic can be accumulated (Goldman and Papson,156). Nature has become scarcer than commodified space within a city, and this design is speaking to that issue. Homelessness is another issue that is communicated, the warm subway air, flowing through the grids providing a ‘home’ to those with out. Subway art design is more than simple graffiti and advertisements; it reverses the gaze by having the artist reflect their message to commuters.
            There is very little personal space when looking at the New York subway system
. Passengers are quite literally on top of each other physically in busy times, and public space that is visible is scattered with advertisements. Culture and space intermingle and this is especially important when looking at commuter culture and advertisements targeted towards them (Foucault, 100). The difference of public space versus the private space can be parallel to an individuals commute in their car versus a subway ride.
            Los Angeles is a city of highways
. Woody Allen puts it best “Hey you mean were going to walk from the car to the living room? My feet have not touched the ground since we hit Los Angeles” Annie Hall. The automobile made long-distance commutes for the average American very accessible. With the changing landscape and commuter patterns, came changes in advertisement. Roadside billboards. “Highway billboards, with its stepped borders, were common on American highways in the 1920 through the 1950s. However, billboards, gradually multiplied over the years and thickets of competing signs became an annoyance to motorists. In the 1960s, federal legislation required the removal of highway billboards within 660 feet of a highway right-of-way; so thousands of billboards were dismantled across the country (Kaszynski, 88).
            The city of Los Angeles is particularly familiar with billboards scattered along the connecting highways
. Los Angeles’ has a popular image as the “automotive city”, carrying thousands of commuters every rush hour to reach their destination. The city of Los Angeles is particularly familiar with billboards scattered along the connecting highways. Los Angeles carries thousands of commuters every rush hour to reach their destination. The city highway is what Catherin Gudis (author of Buyway) refers to as more than merely a route to be traveled. Among other things the road now comprised an endless marketplace “millions of miles long” and billions of dollars strong that with every burst further out of its traditional confinement within town and city boundaries. Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Main Street might have once been the commercial centers for business and trade, but in the age of the automobile all highways were now destined to serve this function (Gudis, 1).
            There is a social affordance to participate in this commute culture
. One you must have a car, be able to afford gas and have hopefully a job to get to everyday. In terms of space, travelling by personal automobile would be the most comfortable it has its downs sides. Environmental concerns specifically, “Air pollution scientists found that eighty eight percent be weight of all contaminants found in Los Angeles’ air could be traced to internal combustion engines” (142). It is obvious why there is a need to educate those emission-producing commuters.
            Social status and environmentalism considered
, there is an exclusive market left to the commuter culture of highway Billboards. Billboard advertisements are targeted to commuters driving or stuck in traffic. They cater to the needs of commuters of higher socio economic status. Luxury items, such as watches and high-end cars fill the horizon. Advertisers assume that if people can afford gas and cars in this recessional period, they have money to spend; this is speaking directly about commuter culture in the city not in rural areas. Environmentalism is a concern for corporations and organizations promoting a green lifestyle (Anderson, 13). It is apparent that this demographic pollutes by commuting by car everyday, so advertisements to increase awareness are popular on highway sides.
            The debate over public space versus private space is obviously apparent when discussing billboard advertisements. Sociologist’s Mimi Sheller and John Urry have criticized the use of static conceptions of private and public, opting for an analysis incorporating a multitude of dynamic hybrids between the two when looking at billboards and the emergence both of the new socio-technical practices of the city and of a new theoretical paradigm. Companies buy billboards to post their advertisements, privatizing commuter’s skyline view and selling it back to them.
            There is a great use of creativity when examining billboard advertisement
. Artists incorporate these new spaces in their productions. Billboards that combine the real and the illusionary, the actual object for sale and the imagery that advertised it, acted out the steps consumers would need to take on their path from viewing to shopping. For example on multiple sites in Los Angeles, pierce Arrow dealers featured actual automobiles (their 1926 model) behind the glass of an elaborately sculpted ornamental frame (Gudis, 142).  Traditionally, art works have always been part of the city, from the equestrian statue to billboards; in recent years, the city has increasingly become part of the artists representation. The Adidas highway advertisement is a different spin on highway billboards [see Figure 4]. Adidas magically captures the entire an overpass at Munich airport with this brilliant ad for the world cup soccer-featuring goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn. The campaign was implemented to be as large as the current wave of soccer fever sweeping the country.            
            Both commuter areas: New York’s subway system and Los Angeles’ highway, advertisements are targeted to the masses. There is a loss of individualism. George Simmel explains, “The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture and the technique of life. (Borden, Hall, Miles, 13).  Subway advertisements offer a depressing window into the life of the underground, the lower class faceless Other. Commuters on the highway are targeted as consumers to spend and buy into a better lifestyle. While advertisements that serve as information to the public, or promote greener living or safety, make this world a better place. For example [Figure 5] displays the roadside billboard ads ‘Slow Down’ set out in consecutive order to deliver the clear message. However when the message is as poignant as this campaign, drivers sit up and notice. Using the old flick book art form of animation and motion the individual images create a fast moving clip to a driver speeding by them at high speeds. Quite literally, for a speeding driver life can flash by them in a split second. The current mode of mass media communication is due to the control of the media by large corporations that are quite often spread over various industries (Herman and Chomsky, 42). A lot, of advertisements simply take public space, privatize it and sell it to the everyday commuter.

Figure 1 – Headphone Safety Campaign by NSW Police

Figure 2- Sony Advertisement

Figure 3 – First Aid Awareness

Figure 4

  Figure 5- Slow Down

Figure 6- Pepsi 2009

All images cited: 18 Mar. 2009 .

Figure 7- Pierce Arrow car behind glass – Los Angeles

Source:  (Gudis, 143)
Annotated Bibliography
Allen, Irving Lewis. The City in Slang New York Life and Popular Speech. New York:             Oxford UP, USA, 1994.
Andersen, Allison. Media, Culture and the Environment. Rutgers University Press,             1997.
Borden, Iain. Tim Hall and Malcolm Miles.  City cultures reader. New York, NY:             Routledge, 2003.
Bullard, Robert. Glenn Johnson, Angel Torres. Highway Robbery Transportation Racism             and New Routes to Equity. New York: South End P, 2004. 8.
Foucault, Michel. Heterotopia and the city public space in a postcivil society. New York:             Routledge, 2008. 100.
Gudis, Catherine. Buyways Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape             (Cultural Spaces). New York: Routledge, 2004.

Gripsrud, Jostein, and Priscilla Ovalle. Television after TV Essays on a Medium in Transition (Console-ing Passions). New York: Duke UP, 2004. 203.

Herman, Edward & Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media. Pantheon Books, 1998.

Kaszynski, William. The American Highway The History and Culture of Roads in the             United States. Boston: McFarland & Company, 2000.

Sheller, Mimi. John Urry. Mobile technologies of the city. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Taurins, Evan. "Subway Art." Personal interview. 05 April. 2009. 18 Mar. 2009 .

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