As I took a walk through the new subway entrance at Atlantic Avenue on Monday, the fact that I was essentially strolling through a giant advertisement was not lost on me. Barclays is paying the MTA $4 million in 20 installments over the next two decades to keep its name on the Atlantic Ave. station complex and the subway map. Even as it serves as an identifier of what will become a major destination for Brooklyn-bound subway riders, it’s still advertising.
Over the years — actually the decades and even the century — New Yorkers have grown accustomed to advertising in the subways. Billboards have long decorated the station walls, and while old advertisements in vintage trains seem quaint by comparison to today’s staid placards, they’re still ads nonetheless. They’ve been there since nearly Day One, and they’ll continue to be there long into the subway future.
Lately, the MTA has beefed up its advertising offerings. With a lucrative deal in place with CBS Outdoors, the MTA has expanded advertising tremendously. Video boards outside of stations flash dynamic ads while station takeovers — particularly at Times Square and Grand Central — see the walls plastered with posters. A Shuttle train gets its monthly wrapping, and even staircases and turnstiles carry corporate sponsorships. Now, Metrocard fronts and backs are for sale, and for the MTA, this means dollars.
Earlier this week, David Dunlap of The Times explored the proliferation of advertising underground. The MTA, he found, has upped its advertising revenue to $120 million from $106 million five years ago and just $38 million 15 years ago. As the subways have been slowly modernized, ridership has spiked and safety has improved in leaps and bounds, advertisers are willing to spend dollars to attract captive underground audiences. Advertising dollars, Dunlap notes, now make up one percent of the MTA’s budget.
Not everyone, though, is happy about it. As Transit hopes to expand its digital advertising footprint while keeping ads somewhat reasonable — buses, for instance, are not fully wrapped due to safety concerns — critics voiced their concerns. “We’ve gotten to the point now where the M.T.A. doesn’t respect its own environment and is filling it with sight pollution,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a UVA professor who once taught in New York, said “A bright yellow subway car, branded to sell something, is not comfortable, it’s not respectful and it’s not dignified. Environmentally, the city should be paying attention to dignity as a quality-of-life indicator.”
That is, of course, a complaint put forward since the dawn of the age of subways. As the first operators of the subway argued, advertising was an integral part of their plan. As long as billboards didn’t obscure station names, August Belmont wanted ads, to the chagrin of the City’s Rapid Transit Commission and William Barclay Parsons. Belmont successfully defended a lawsuit against the ads brought forth by the Manhattan Borough President, and Squire Vickers uttered a classic line: “It is hoped that the revenue will prove to be an efficient balm for hurt minds.”
That is, once again, where we are. The ads are indeed everywhere, and we accept it. Some become conversation pieces of parts of New York City lore — Dr. Zizmor, anymore? All in all, they have endured as a balm for hurt minds. We pay in ads or we pay in dollars. The choice is an easy one.