Corporate Graffiti Vandals

For a long time I’ve been pondering how exactly a commons is converted into a market, catalyzing the usual social inequities and pathologies. How is a lively civic culture with a particular local history and character (e.g., Main Street) transformed into an anonymous and anaesthetized arena of consumer fantasy (e.g., the shopping mall)? I tripped across an important clue yesterday in an Associated Press story by Mike Colias (August 25, 2005) describing the growing trend among the nation’s subway systems of forcing millions of captive riders to watch television and tunnel ads.

A market begins to colonize a commons – the first step toward enclosure – by introducing consumerist culture into commercial-free civic spaces. Exploiting budget shortfalls and crumbing infrastructure, corporations offer modest sums of cash to “help” beleaguered city systems while advancing their own self-serving priorities. The goal is to monetize people’s daily experiences in seemingly benign ways, and to splash seductive market fantasies across our consciousness. Little do we suspect that today’s sassy enticement will become tomorrow’s odious assault.

In Chicago, the subway tunnel is lined with Target ads that read like a child’s flip-book of cartoon images. In Atlanta, flat-screen television monitors in subway cars air local newscasts along with commercials (forget trying to read a book or think your own thoughts). In New York, companies can buy exclusive rights to all advertising spaces in high-traffic subway stations like Penn Station and Grand Central. In Washington, D.C., every inch of some Metro rail cars are “wrapped” in huge, inescapable ads for McDonald’s.

For corporate sponsors, all of this is a boon. They can break through the “commercial clutter” that they have created everywhere else by invading an “under-leveraged” or virginal civic space. They can exploit the financial neediness of the subway system to get cost-efficient and novel advertising exposure. (Consider the bargain of leveraging a massive capital infrastructure, the subway system, paid for by taxpayers, by paying a relatively minuscule sum to re-brand it.)

Finally, and most importantly, corporations can begin to acculturate citizens to a new “reality,” that their own city services and public spaces do not really belong to them, but to corporate advertisers. A successful enclosure of the commons requires an identity transformation among citizens. What better vehicle than ubiquitous advertising to give central city spaces corporate brand identities?

The impresarios of this market enclosure are understandably worried about a citizen backlash. They don’t want to move too far, too fast. Subway authorities in New York have declined, for now, to rename entire subway stations and subway lines after corporate sponsors…but such plans will presumably be revived if and when consumers become acculturated to this first escalation of subway advertising. Whatever the market will bear. Advertisers are surely willing to be patient because they realize that the prospect of monetizing a city’s most prominent landmarks would be a bonanza. You can’t buy that kind of “mindshare” these days.

Indeed, how does a person begin to protect his/her endangered interior spaces and consciousness, let alone nurture a sense of civic spirit? “It’s becoming more difficult to have quiet personal space without getting bombarded by message,” complained one longtime rider of the Chicago subway system.

Politicians and corporate leaders routinely exhort people to “get involved!” and “get out and vote!” “Help out the community!” But when these very people then sell off the symbols and capital stock owned by citizens to roving gangs of corporate graffiti vandals, no wonder people feel betrayed and grow sullen. They’ve been had. Enclosure is underway.

The dean of Boston University’s college of communications was quoted in the AP article saying, “For the transit system, there is no downside to selling more advertising. Some of civic do-gooder types might rattle cages because they see citizens becoming one more Disneyworld of commercialism. But I think most passengers get used to it.”

Yes, let’s sell off the identity of our city and public resources, amassed at great taxpayer expense, to private companies for a song. Let’s use the immense cultural power of advertising to demoralize citizens who might care about their city. Let’s jettison the shared memories and distinctiveness of local landmarks and convert them into fungible commodities that no one cares about.

Most passengers will get used to it? Now that’s scary.