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2003.12.01

[grid::brand] Heidi Cody on Times Square

New York artist Heidi Cody participates as the official Glowlab correspondent for Grid Blog on the topic of "the brand". Here's what she has to say...

Are you sick of being bombarded by ads, logos and signs? These brand-driven, bad pick-up line seductions are everywhere, in forms ranging from print and broadcast media, to clothing, to subway car ad blitzes, to rural highways and city streets. Constant commercial pitches are an ever-encroaching fact of life in our advanced capitalist economy. All heavily-trafficked, visible space is prime real estate for promoting brands. The result is a cluttered, consumerist environment which, especially in its urban extreme, is a direct reflection of our market-driven economy.

The ultimate American example of brand mania capitalizing on urban space, for better or worse, is Times Square in Manhattan. Stretching roughly from 42nd to 48th Street, and between 7th Ave./Broadway and 8th Ave., the reliable New York street grid gives way at Times Square, for the X created by Broadway and 7th Avenues as they cross one another running North to South. This odd street layout and its subsequent traffic patterns compound the visual confusion provided by some of the world's most distracting large-scale signage, making it a bewildering urban scape for first-time visitors – of which there are about 20 million a year.

Times Square is the spectacular, mega-watt collision of real estate and corporate branding. Here, rental fees for sides of buildings, where signs are usually displayed, range from $100,000 to $2 million a month. These are 1999 figures, and do not include electricity. Sign fabrication fees top out in the tens of millions of dollars. The financial muscle required to display a brand in the area automatically weeds out lesser players, while upping the ante for showstopping signage for the remaining goliath competitors. Times Square is now an eye-popping slugfest of brand titans.

Starting from the second story and extending up sometimes eight or more floors, Times Square's signs effectively dazzle in a collective sensory overload. Entertainment giants such as ABC, Disney, Viacom, and Virgin feature prominently, as do large investment industry firms like Dow Jones, Fleet, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, NASDAQ and Prudential. Major retail stores, some national food chains and other companies are also represented. The ongoing one-upsmanship of the giant signs has great entertainment value, as neighboring signs get bigger and brighter, vying to outshine each other.

Historically, Times Square has expanded and contracted according to the overall economy since the first block-long Wrigley's Gum sign in 1917. Known as the Great White Way for its old-time incandescent wattage, Times Square has since been the locus of innovative signage technologies, including the first zipper sign on the 1940 Bond Clothiers "spectacular" sign, on the East side of 45th Street and Broadway, the neon craze of the 50's and 60's, and the current rise of light-emitting diode, or LED, screen displays.

One of the most technologically impressive examples of LED displays in the area is the 120 foot-tall cylindrical NASDAQ sign which wraps 90 feet around the Condé Nast Building at Broadway and 43rd Street. Punctuated visually by 30 cut-out windows for the offices inside, the 18" thick screen is set out from the perimeter of the building, clearing a hidden three-foot catwalk for maintenance workers. Over 800 power units are mounted behind the screen, and the 18 million LEDs are divided into eight simultaneously operated screens that are controlled from a room in the Condé Nast Building. The LED screen, of which there are now many flat examples in New York, can display imagery ranging from text to movies across a curved surface.

Times Square is both too much to absorb visually, and a New York must-see. By turns derided as a corporate theme park, and admired as a glitzy American landmark, it is always busy and usually crowded. Combine the moving passersby, standing tourists and zooming taxis with the huge volume of visual information far above eye level, and you have a perfect recipe for disorientation and rapid pedestrian burnout. But there's nothing quite like it, at least in this country. Just remember: if you get overwhelmed, look for the giant MTA Subway sign that has about a million lights on it. It's undergoing renovation, but it'll be back soon.

- Heidi Cody

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Tracked on Dec 1, 2003 11:23:17 PM

Comments

Great post.

It has given me something to chew over.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson | Dec 1, 2003 11:30:41 PM

Heidi,

Super post. "Pedestrian Burnout". I think you've coined a new bumper sticker - or better yet- a patch for the butt of your pants.

OK - nice.

Lee

Posted by: Lee Walton | Dec 2, 2003 12:52:32 AM

Thanks,I'm glad you liked it. Pedestrian Burnout would be a great bumper sticker.

Posted by: Heidi Cody | Dec 2, 2003 11:35:45 AM

....and while you're safely ensconsed in that subway car, surrounded by people (real people!) at last, why not take out a scrap of paper and jot down the names of the signs you found most disturbing or egregious?
remember which ones those are as you think about feeding the monster this holiday season.

or, better yet, turn to your neighbor on the train and see what s/he thinks about NYCs mega-watt collision of real estate and corporate branding. you'll probably be surprised what you hear.

now we'd be getting somewhere!

fabulous post

bug
Seattle WA

Posted by: bug | Dec 2, 2003 2:19:31 PM

but what about it? its a pretty interesting topic but you seem not to really comment on it or give your opinion. lots of interesting work has been done, and continues to be done on the topic. for instance pipilotti rist did an video installation on the sony jumbotron screen years ago in times square (copting, infecting the traditionally coporate medium) and learning from las vegas talks about the idea of buildings becoming signs and signs becoming buildings. but now its even going further than this. the buildings are the signs and now the signs are screens. we do we interact in this space and how to space and time work or dissolve?

Posted by: zak | Dec 2, 2003 2:23:56 PM

My personal opinions are mixed, and were not the point of this blog. I also wanted to keep it short. The artwork I make, which you can see by googling me, continually examines consumer culture, but from a perspective that largely leaves opinions up the the viewer. I prefer this documentary-style approach to ham-handed opining. I also appreciate the inherent contradictions in consumer culture. I can tell you this, though: As a signage nerd, I should love Times Square, but my initial awe quickly fades, because the amount of visual information there is totally overwhelming. I can stand about 2 days in Vegas and about 10 minutes in Times Square. The complexity of Times Square is bewildering, but worth thinking about. That’s why I wrote about it. The topic is clearly book-worthy.

Learning from Las Vegas is next on my reading list. I’m stuck in a big book right now. Someone who is more into theory posted some insightful commentary on my blog that you might enjoy reading:

http://www.sauer-thompson.com/junkforcode/archives/001167.html

Posted by: Heidi | Dec 2, 2003 5:00:28 PM

Can't read the thing, the type is too small.o

Posted by: Mark Pascale | Dec 2, 2003 9:34:10 PM

Mark - thanks for letting us know. We've received a few complaints about font size lately, so we went ahead and changed it to be slightly more readable...
cheers-

Posted by: Glowlab | Dec 3, 2003 12:54:24 AM

Heidi, I can read it now. I'm glad to know that signing in here has an effect. As one who remembers the Maxwell House steaming cup of coffee and Lucky Strike (?) smoking cigarette ads in Times Square, I have to agree that I ran away horrified when I last passed through the area. It is a veritable cacaphony of visual images now. I enjoyed your inclusion of the post card image, and wondered if it came from the Curt Teich Postcard Archive in Illinois. If not, I'll bet you would find much more there that would encourage you to write at greater length about the evolution of that space and signage in general. They can do a cross-indexed search for you at the Teich archive and print-out photo-copies of the related cards. They also have their newsletter, which keeps a continuous bibliography of where and in what context the cards are reproduced. The newsletter is Image File, and Catherine Hamilton-Smith is the Curator. I'm sure she could tell you if that is a Teich postcard. You can Google her, or look up the archive at the Lake County (Illinois) Museum.
Thanks for sending me that link.

Mark

Posted by: Mark Pascale | Dec 3, 2003 11:38:09 PM

It's not like I have any free time to sit down and attempt to write a book! The idea is tempting, although I suspect it's been attempted before. I did only cursory research online for this blog, and grabbed the postcard image from an informative website:

www.agilitynut.com/signs7.html

So I don't know where the card came from. I really appreciate the lead on the information archive. I have now started Learning from Las Vegas, and need to get another book called Signs and Wonders, by someone who runs a 100+ year old company here in NY called ArtKraft Strauss. I think they made the Bond Sign.

So many projects, not enough money or time. I'm thinking about it though. Thanks for your support.

Heidi

Posted by: Heidi | Dec 4, 2003 12:56:25 PM

Heidi,

Thanks for the tip on "agilitynut". I checked her out and found a very queer re-use of a Howard Johnson's restaurant and motel in Harrisonburg, VA, which is now being used a a DORM by James Madison Univ. I used to spend summer vacations in Harrisonburg, where my uncle owned a department store, and we used to eat at that HJ. Even more coincidentally, several years ago, a student from JMU applied to the print program at SAIC. His name....Mark Pascale. He was not accepted, but I did meet him. I have a friend who teaches at JMU, so I'll have to ask him about this special dorm.

As the saying goes, "That's what I like about the South." Very skillful recycling of roadside architecture. We should tell the woman who owns that site about the HJ in Chicago (Rogers Park), which has been turned into the Ceramics department of Loyola University. Did you know about that one?

Smiling, Mark

Posted by: Mark Pascale | Dec 6, 2003 7:41:13 AM

Hello.
My name is stefan and im a danish student.
I have a projekt about Times Square.
I want to know, What is Times Square?

Stefan

Posted by: Stefan | Mar 24, 2004 6:39:14 AM

Heidi,
I am a student who has to identify all of the brand names in your ABC's of branding display. I cannot figure out what the H,J,U,or X logo's are from. Any help would be greatly welcomed.
Thanks, Deana

Posted by: Deana | May 5, 2004 11:00:00 AM

Hi Deana,

H is Hebrew National
J is Jello (sugar free)
U is Uncle Ben's
X is Xtra Laundry Detergent

Best,
Heidi

Posted by: Heidi | May 6, 2004 10:26:42 AM

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