Pedestrians at a scramble crossing in the Shibuya shopping district in Tokyo. Toru Hanai/Reuters

In cities around the world, advertising is everywhere. We may try to shut it out, but it reflects who we are (or want to be) and connects us to the urban past.

“I’m still flying at four thousand feet when I see it, that scarcely perceptible glow, as though the moon had rushed ahead of schedule. Paris is rising over the edge of the earth.”

At the end of his grueling 33-hour solo flight over the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh was searching for the airport, north of the French capital, on which to land the Spirit of St. Louis. The pilot would recall the unconventional but dazzling navigation aid he used: “Far below, a little offset from the center, is a column of lights pointing upward, changing angles as I fly—the Eiffel Tower. I circle once above it and turn north-eastward.”

In those days, the Eiffel Tower was less a solitary beacon and more a constellation. It was illuminated by 250,000 light bulbs, spelling out the word Citroën. From 1925 to 1934, this symbol of Paris—and indeed of modernity itself—was a colossal advertisement for a company, helmed by a former arms manufacturer, that was headed for bankruptcy.

From 1925 to 1934, the Eiffel Tower displayed an ad for carmaker Citroën, spelled out in 250,000 light bulbs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Advertisements tell us about much more than the products and services they promote. They tell us about desire, how it changes, and how it and thus we are manipulated. Like many revelatory urban features, advertising signage is ubiquitous to the point of becoming almost invisible. Yet we read cities as much as we inhabit and traverse them.

In cinematic aerial footage of cities, we are often presented with the blank facades of skyscrapers. But the closer to street level we get, the closer to the part of the city we navigate, we find that cities are a riot of lettering and symbols. The city itself is a form of visual language. Advertising is everywhere. It is a pictorial cacophony that we’ve grown used to.

We are not as immune as we might think to its powers. It reflects who we are, or want to be, while threatening to overwhelm us. And yet, often despite itself, it can connect us to the past, to the local, and to senses of meaning.

How to stand out in a visual cacophony

The first aim of signage is to stand out. Grabbing the attention of passersby was easier in the past, when there were fewer signs. Competition, however, has long been fierce. Ingenuity has always been required to gain an edge.

In the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, archaeologists found revealing signs on buildings—a dairy was marked by an engraving of a goat, a stonemason by tools, a wine merchant by two figures hauling an amphora jug, presumably full of wine.

This sign in Pompeii, showing two figures carrying an amphora, is thought to have advertised a wine shop. (Arne Baruldsen/Shutterstock)

In Japan, shop signs known as kanban were often carved out of wood or bamboo. They served a similar purpose as their Roman equivalents: Combs, vegetables, swords, and wigs, among other objects, informed citizens of the wares on sale. But they were sometimes presented with such decorative skill and attention—for instance, a gold-lacquered carp leaping into a waterfall, representing a pharmacist—that they became works of art.  

Due to their intrusive quality, signs can arouse irritation as much as curiosity. In Daniel Defoe’s novel A Journal of the Plague Year, he laments one of the side-effects of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665. “[A] wicked generation of pretenders to magic” made their fortunes in superstition, and

this trade grew so open and so generally practiced that it became common to have signs and inscriptions set up at doors: “here lives a fortune-teller,” “here lives an astrologer,” “here you may have your nativity calculated,” and the like ...

There were more risks than the exploitation of credulity. The craze in London for hanging signs resulted in accidents, such as one in 1718 in Bride Street, when four people were killed by a falling sign that pulled part of the facade off the building. This resulted in periods when such signage was banned in England.

The Golden Fleece pub in York, England, with a gilded sheep hanging out front, dates back to the early 16th century or earlier. (Pres Panayotov/Shutterstock)

By the 19th century, advertising had colonized cities. In earlier times, the cacophony of salespeople had been audio, as encapsulated by Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician, but now it was also aesthetic. Indeed, developments in advertising printing and display, as well as the impermanence of businesses, encouraged the move away from fixed architectural ornament long before Modernism.

In Punch magazine, cartoonists railed against what appeared to be a hysteria of advertising, but which was quickly becoming the new norm. As early as 1835, John Orlando Parry had depicted A London Street Scene as a babel of messages, fly-posted layer upon layer like archaeological strata. The eyes of the public soon attuned and they began not to notice, consciously at least.

Bill-pasters shown in the 1877 book 'Street Life in London' by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. (LSE Library)

The setting of the sun was an obstacle to advertising after dark, but with developments in electric lighting, it was eventually possible to write on the fabric of night. It was with neon lighting that the nocturnal city became a language. While the origins are contested, it is certain that it began in Paris, with the realization that Georges Claude’s neon tubes outlining the Grand Palais could be shaped into lettering. The first neon sign in the city was likely for the upmarket barber Le Palace Coiffeur in Montmartre. From there, neon spread across the world, blooming in places like Las Vegas and Hong Kong.

Neon signs illuminate a street in Hong Kong in 2017. (Vincent Yu/AP)

But through many changes in materials and technology, instant recognition has remained paramount. In London today, your eyes quickly adapt to look for the red, blue and white roundels of the Tube, through a thicket of information. If cities can be read, this is a form of shorthand.

Some advertising symbols have been around for centuries and maintain their original form, such as the three golden spheres of pawnbrokers, even if the original meaning has faded into obscurity. The barber’s pole, for example, with its helical lines of red and white, is a leftover from the days when barbers, adept with blades, bled people for their “health” and performed minor surgeries.

A pharmacy sign in Cologne, Germany, displays the traditional bowl of Hygeia and snake of Asclepius. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Others symbols evolve over time. Pharmacists have been represented by hanging show globes; by the bowl of Hygeia (the ancient Greek goddess of health) with the entwined snake of Asclepius (the god of medicine); and more recently, by glowing green crosses. Some symbols even make the leap from one company to another, like the Magikist lips in Chicago, which originally advertised a carpet-cleaning company, then a maker of pressure-washing equipment.

Some signs are international or supranational, from the Golden Arches of McDonald’s to the Spencerian script of Coca-Cola. Others are singular, and vernacular, in character. Other than the citizens themselves, there are few more immediate indicators of the multi-ethnicity of urban populations than the pop-up idiosyncratic signage of shops, cafés, and restaurants (even if there have been attempts to gentrify this with classic, and perhaps classist, script).

People and ads in motion

How we see advertisements has had an impact on their changing forms. Swinging shop signs were designed to intrude into the pedestrian sight line. With the arrival of omnibuses, ads became mobile, which we still see in the public transportation of today. As viewers themselves became independently mobile in the age of the automobile, advertisers responded accordingly.

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour singled out Nevada’s gambling magnet in their book Learning from Las Vegas as the zenith, or nadir, of this approach. Flashing neon motel signs grabbed the attention of drivers and relied on their impulsivity. Signs became huge to stand out at cruising speed—often surpassing, and outliving, the buildings they represented (“the big sign and the little building is the rule of Route 66”).

The Vegas Strip in the early 1980s. In the automobile age, signs got bigger so that drivers traveling at high speeds wouldn’t miss them. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

As long, straight highways crossed the desert toward the city, advertisers gained space and time to create narratives, through the use of staggered signs and doggerel that would gradually unfold as cars passed. Burma Shave was a famous example, with ditties like, “Our fortune / Is your / Shaven face / It’s our best / Advertising space / Burma-Shave,” and “Don’t take / a curve / at 60 per / We hate to lose / a customer / Burma-Shave.”

With the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the U.S. government attempted to legislate against what was seen as visual pollution. While this affected small businesses, who’d made roadside and barn signage an unlikely form of outsider art, it ultimately did little to halt the advance of corporate advertising. Ever more elaborate ways of gaining and holding the public’s interest continued to unfold, like the Camel sign that blew four-foot smoke rings on Broadway. What could be dismissed as childish gimmickry succeeded in planting seeds in many young minds.

At certain hubs, intersections, and gathering points (Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing), companies will spend fortunes on ads, for status as much as product visibility. A well-placed and photogenic Apple store is effectively an advertisement for the company, and if such stores run at a loss, the company makes up for it elsewhere. The cost of optimal placing for advertising is a continual concern. Unable or unwilling to afford prime spaces, companies may respond with “human directionals”—the people you see in busy thoroughfares, holding arrows pointing to businesses in side streets.

Vehicles drive around with outsized mascots on their rooftops. Cyclists pull mobile billboards behind them. Such attempts at “guerrilla marketing” can face censure by the state; Beijing, for instance, has clamped down on unauthorized rooftop billboards.

Advertising as cultural heritage

This can, however, highlight failures in the state, not just to allow small businesses and entrepreneurs to flourish in the face of corporate monopolies, but also in terms of negligence toward public life and heritage. Several years ago, the Rialto Bridge in Venice was shrouded in an advertisement for Diesel, the founder of which had donated €5 million for its restoration. The reliance on the beneficence of billionaires highlights that something is amiss in the maintenance of our cities.  

If advertising can be used to help save heritage, should advertising itself be treated as heritage and preserved as such? The first question to ask is: Is it art? Certainly, it appears in art, from the paintings of Edward Hopper to the photographs of Berenice Abbott to the Pop Art prints of Warhol. A high-water mark of Ad Art was the hand-painted series of billboards by Foster & Kleiser for recording artists. Another peak is to be found in the remarkable hand-painted barbershop signs in West Africa, reminiscent of painted Ghanaian film posters.

It is easier to treat signs as art when the connection to the mercantilism is lost. In Blade Runner 2049, the appearance of largely defunct companies like Pan Am and Atari in building-encompassing ads (a reality the original Blade Runner accurately predicted) has a strangely haunting effect, as if we’re glimpsing not just the future but a different timeline. The logos become mysterious relics. Similarly, the neon signs of Hong Kong, the city that inspired Blade Runner, seem especially enigmatic to visitors who don’t know Chinese; the hieroglyphic spell of their allure relies on ignorance and might be broken if their purposes were revealed.

A sign can become so iconic it comes to embody an entire city. The White Stag neon sign may have once advertised sugar and sportswear but now it represents Portland, Oregon. Cities have long announced their presence with coats of arms (the “Munich child” or Münchner Kindl, for instance). In the English shires, villages have pseudo-medieval illustrated signposts hinting at local trades and folklore. In Russia, the entrances to cities are emblazoned with retrofuturistic welcome signs. Each advertises how a city sees itself, and how it wants to be seen.

The White Stag sign, which formerly advertised sugar and sportswear brands, has come to symbolize the city of Portland and is now owned by the city. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Signs can also be indicative of a city’s decline, economically and politically. If the “zero tolerance” belief in a slippery slope—from petty crime to societal collapse—holds any sway, and icons of cities are deteriorating through neglect or being demolished by developers, it does not bode well for future metropolitan health.

Local signs give cities their unique character in the face of encroaching hegemony where every main street looks the same, and small businesses are crushed by megaliths. They connect us to the past, to vernacular styles, to folklore. The best examples catch our eye as children and stay with us, and the public respond to them with great affection and outrage when they are endangered.

The Skipping Girl sign in Melbourne was resurrected after an outcry at its removal. In Miami, the Coppertone sign, featuring a little girl having her swimsuit tugged on by a dog, was restored after losing part of its head during Hurricane Irma. When public support is absent or insufficient, other forms of preservation are still possible; a multitude of Las Vegas casino signs are now housed in the Neon Museum’s Neon Boneyard. Due to changes in technology, this cemetery of signs serves itself as a sign of things to come.

Algorithms, kinetic facades, and the branded cityscape

Various signage crafts have been under threat across the world. LEDs are replacing neon in Hong Kong, meaning that neon sign-makers are increasingly rare. Hand-painted ads are still hanging on in places like Cambodia and Vietnam, and a project is underway to document India’s disappearing hand-painted type.

Being technologically surpassed doesn’t mean obsolescence, especially if the outdated methods offer niche qualities missing in more up-to-date approaches (consider the revival in vinyl). What is redundant to one person may be another’s opportunity. Perhaps technologies like 3D printing will herald a renaissance in signs, increasing our ability to sculpt and decorate our surroundings.

There are hopeful indications that signs are being taken seriously. The Monarch and Valdivieso neon signs of Santiago have been declared national monuments of Chile. Playful icons like the Guaranteed Pure Milk bottle, Montreal, have been restored. Signs have been added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In terms of public interest and influence, there are websites now collecting “ghost signs” in cities such as Cairo and Dublin, with efforts being made to bring them back to life. Projects like Berlin Typography and Document Italy are superb examples of the rich and plural lettering styles in our cities, from Gothic to Futura and beyond.

What will the future hold for advertising? Signs will change as they always have, and change itself will become central. In a sense, this is already the case, with digital displays and rotating trivision billboards (the latter a method originating with ancient Greek theatrical designers). In the future, thanks to advances in kinetic facades in architecture, ads and their buildings will metamorphose. They will be targeted to individuals using accumulated data and algorithms, not unlike the holographic bombardments in Minority Report. Synaps Labs is already designing billboards that attune adverts to different models of passing cars.

The decline of neon in favor of LEDs has not hampered plans to illuminate the dark hours with signs. The Russian startup StartRocket has proposed the use of satellites, called “cubesats,” orbiting the Earth to create ads in the night sky. Added to proposals for artificial moons to illuminate Chinese cities like Chengdu, it appears as if night may, eventually, no longer be a place to escape to.

It seems certain, even in the event of environmental collapse, that the domination of space by advertising will continue. Anywhere we spend idle time is covered: subway-car walls, bus shelters, the view above urinals, the backs of toilet doors. When we watch sports, there are ads during the program, on the players’ uniforms, and on the field of play.

Rather than cover every conceivable space with signs, however, why not go directly to the way we perceive everything? If our time online is now rife with tailored ads, why not then our sight itself, thanks to augmented reality?

Many of us would welcome such developments, given that there will be countless incentives. For all the dystopian dread that such ideas conjure up, trust is not lacking. A recent Edelman survey found 53 percent of people believe “brands can do more to solve social ills than the government,” which is as much an indictment of states as an endorsement of corporations. Advertising has played a huge role in humanizing businesses. They no longer appear as the cold, distant bureaucracies of old. They are smart, ironic, woke, seemingly approachable, and apparently harmless. This too is advertising. In Japan, the corporate Yuru-chara mascot market is worth billions.

In May 2017, M&M'S staged an augmented-reality event in New York’s Times Square that made surrounding billboards part of an AR game. (Jason DeCrow/Invision for M&M’S/AP)

Initially, characters were used by companies to differentiate themselves from competitors offering almost-identical products, as Naomi Klein pointed out in No Logo, but gradually it became apparent that they established an emotional bond with the populace. This might seem the least damaging aspect of corporate behavior, but influence can be a pernicious thing. “By saturating the public domain with false sincerity,” Avner Offer observed in The Challenge of Affluence, “advertising makes genuine sincerity more difficult.”

Indeed, our very conception of what progress is has arguably been influenced. The plethora of socially conscious advertising may appear to be the result of capitalism catching up with society’s progressive strides, but a less palatable view is that growing up from the cradle to the grave under omnipresent consumerism has instilled certain values within us: a fixation on choice, the desire for instant gratification, a pressure to cultivate and advertise ourselves publicly almost as brands; an abiding sense of inadequacy and the pursuit of insatiable aspirations.

Urban signs are also a theater, if not an all-out battleground. Concerned as they are with the winning of hearts and minds, of (must-) haves and have-nots, they are political. They exist in contested space.

Consider the tribal painted gable walls of Northern Ireland or the individual sovereignty exhibited by graffiti artists. Consider the Chinese authorities’ efforts to remove Muslim language and symbols from public signage, alongside the repression of that section of the population. An admission that ads shape who we are came recently with the London Mayor Sadiq Khan banning ads that “[pressure] people to conform to unhealthy or unrealistic body images,” and the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority banning ads with “harmful gender stereotypes, which can limit people’s choices or potential in life.”

Perhaps the one casualty of the jungle of signs we inhabit is a sense of clarity. When thousands of billboards were removed from São Paulo under Cidade Limpa (“clean city”) legislation, citizens suddenly noticed their city afresh—its architecture, its problems, their fellow inhabitants—all that had been concealed and distracted from. Likewise, advertising can be unintentionally revelatory in highlighting the disparity between our illusions and reality.

In Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph At the Time of the Louisville Flood (1937), African Americans queue at a flood-relief agency underneath a billboard—featuring a jubilant middle-class white family straight out of Hollywood schlock—that announces, “There’s no way like the American way.” The image was still prescient enough to be used as the basis for the cover of Curtis Mayfield’s album There's No Place Like America Today (1975).

Perhaps it is relevant still. At some point, advertisers move from the supply of services and products to the manufacture of insatiable desires and statuses that they cannot or will not help people attain. The images in the billboards may be beautiful, tantalizingly so, but there is a difference, and even an antagonism, between beauty and truth.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: a Tower Records Japan Inc. store in Tokyo, Japan.
    Life

    The Bankrupt American Brands Still Thriving in Japan

    Cultural cachet, licensing deals, and density explain why Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barneys, and other faded U.S. retailers remain big across the Pacific.

  2. Perspective

    Why Car-Free Streets Will Soon Be the Norm

    In cities like New York, Paris, Rotterdam, and soon San Francisco, car-free streets are emerging amid a growing movement.

  3. Transportation

    How Media Coverage of Car Crashes Downplays the Role of Drivers

    Safety advocates have long complained that media outlets tend to blame pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars. Research suggests they’re right.

  4. photo: a commuter looks at a small map of the London Tube in 2009
    Maps

    Help! The London Tube Map Is Out of Control.

    It’s never been easy to design a map of the city’s underground transit network. But soon, critics say, legibility concerns will demand a new look.

  5. Photos

    How Thousands of Headstones Ended Up Under a Philadelphia Bridge

    A surprising tale of a forgotten cemetery, a land grab, and some clever recycling.

×