Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new sponsorship deal with retail giant Carrefour is just the latest move in renting out the city's Metro brand—and public space.
For rent: one subway system. That seems to be the approach of Madrid Metro, which is taking public transit advertising to unprecedented levels. Until the end of October, users of Madrid Metro’s map app (downloaded 1.2 million times so far) will find their plan peppered with the logo of a supermarket chain. Thanks to a deal with French retail giant Carrefour—continental Europe’s answer to Walmart—logos of the megachain will appear wherever there’s one near a Metro station. The idea is to channel passengers in need of groceries straight off of trains and into nearby markets. There are over 100 stores on the map, making Madrid’s Metro map app look like it’s broken out with a serious case of Carrefour acne.
For Madrid’s Metro, this is just the icing on the cake. As things stand already, the network is among the world’s most advertising-saturated. Last summer, the station beneath Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s Times Square, was rechristened Vodafone Sol in a deal with the British mobile-phone company of the same name. (This followed a period when the station’s signs were altered in honor of a Samsung phone to read “Estacion Sol Galaxy Note.") The entire subway line on which Sol lies had also been renamed Line 2 Vodafone for a time. The cost to Vodafone of changing names on all maps and signs for a three-year period: a reasonable-sounding €3 million ($3.8 million).
Madrid Metro has tried a similar but more limited version of the Carrefour deal before. Last year, it distributed 125,000 paper maps showing rental centers for the car company Bluemove. But it’s not just signs and maps that the network has been hawking. Physical areas of Metro stations themselves have also been lent for promotional purposes. Last year Vodafone installed a slide at Sol, while Coca-Cola built mock-ups of soccer stadium locker rooms in three stations this summer.
Madrid Metro’s gradual conversion into a promotional megamall irks some. It erodes the sense that public areas of the city are indeed genuinely public, instead suggesting that they are corporate encampments whose palisades the public may breach only by granting sponsors their involuntary attention. Still, in an indebted city, the lack of ticket-price hikes this year has helped smooth tempers about sponsorship deals. Last year, the network made €11.4 million ($14.4 million) from advertising, a figure set to rise with the new app deal. If this money offsets fare raises (this isn’t guaranteed, of course), then ubiquitous brand logos might be a price worth paying. Finding brand names infiltrating even the names of parts of your city might grate, but the fact that one of Puerta del Sol’s best known landmarks is actually an originally 1930s neon sign advertising Tio Pepe sherry suggests that long familiarity can blunt the sense of intrusion.
Madrid isn’t the only city to experiment with transit sponsorship built into the network, naturally. New York has its own Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Center subway station, while for years the London Tube’s "No Smoking" signs were sponsored by a brand of nicotine gum. Tokyo’s subway has seen ticket barriers transformed to resemble iPhones and giant drink bottles added to concourses as fake pillars. The results aren’t necessarily predictable, however: When the airline Emirates sponsored the new gondola link across the Thames in East London, it got to name the new service—as the Emirates Air Line—and saw its name placed on every London Tube map as a result. They weren’t aware, however, that the gondola would turn out to be an almost riderless white elephant that did little for their image. The boost to brand recognition from plans like this may be stellar, but it doesn’t always quite pay off.