Old advertisements have the power to transport us back in time. An old jingle remembered only on YouTube or a glimpse at a magazine spread from decades past often scream out an era in history. Subway ads are no different. While Dr. Zizmor still survives as youthful as ever, subway car advertising has changed a lot over the past few decades. We no longer see cigarette billboards or anti-graffiti placards. Today, we see floor-to-ceiling ads for NBC’s fall lineup as we walk through Times Square, fully wrapped trains promoting London tourism or Swiss watches, or entire cars replete with of Budweiser placards.
Some ads though stick with you even as the years tick by. One that definitely lives on in the collective memories of New York’s straphangers was a serious campaign, aimed at a public health crisis that defined the era. It was a Department of Health PSA starring two Hispanic 20-somethings named Julio and Marisol. For many, just the names will bring back memories of The Decision or La Decision, as they started out first in Spanish. In 1990, these ads made their debut as the AIDS epidemic had reached a crisis. The first black-and-white strip involved a spat between Marisol and Julio when Julio balked a using a condom. From there, they took a darker turn as friends died and conversations grew more candid. This was heavy stuff for a subway ad campaign.
Over the years, Julio and Marisol garnered a fair amount of press in the city’s papers, and a Times article from 1993 offered up some background on the campaign. A $60,000 grant from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spurred on the PSAs in 1989, and the NYC Department of Health tabbed Connill Advertising to set the story. Targeted at first to higher-risk communities, the story seemed to resonate with the public at large.
After six years, though, a new MTA ad policy torpedoed the soap opera. It was then, 17 years ago, that the MTA announced a new policy that would see the vast majority of subway car ads limited to one major advertiser per side. The MTA figured to earn an extra $3 million per year, but the DOH wouldn’t be a part of it. They didn’t want their campaign lumped in with the Dr. Zizmor’s and toe carbuncle removal ads underground and couldn’t afford the higher rates.
The agency standoff lasted two years, and in 1997, Julio and Marisol made their triumphant return. “Many New Yorkers have told us that they appreciate the Decision series not only for the practical information about HIV/AIDS which it provides, but also for the deep emotional feelings, questions, and concerns expressed by the characters in the story,” then-Health Commissioner Benjamin Mojica said. “The situations in the story are the kinds which people may see themselves in, situations which people can relate to. The great value of the Decision campaign is that, because it is fun and because people can relate to it, they will read it and internalize the more detailed messages we target each issue to — especially the importance of safe sex and the alarming dangers of drug abuse.”
The second iteration of The Decision, not nearly as widespread as the first, lasted until the early 2000s when one of the characters died and another found out a previous lover was HIV positive. As a Daily News piece from 2002 notes, by then, AIDS deaths in the city had dropped from 7000 annually to 2000. In 2010, that figure stood at under 1700, and Julio and Marisol live in on the Smithsonian but not the subways, remnants of another era in New York City history.