De-branded spaces are startling: Silence amidst the din of advertising. An urban pause, emptiness within the frenetic swirl.


What do you do with a successful brand? You push it, and push it, and push it.


How disconnected these four women are from their fairy-tale origins! 

The possible downsides of inviting your consumers to eat semolina representations of your characters.


The sheep-skins and disguises in which our global brands wrap themselves. Above, one of the cars on Main Street U.S.A. Disneyland as a kind of cell, ringed with a semi-permeable membrane, selective about what enters or exits or exists. This car can exist only inside the park; the brand itself necessarily floats both inside and outside of it. There’s data, and then there’s skin.


And HERTZ again, on the streets of Paris. Product as billboard.


Four papers, two delayed flights, an internet outage, and six inches of snow later: We’re back! Expect a return to our regular posting schedule.


A newsstand near the Marais, in central Paris.

Newsstands and billboards across Paris display dynamic advertisements, in which a display panel vertically scrolls through three advertisements. These are similar in concept to the American rotating tri-panel billboards. From a technical standpoint, this is a clever way of maximizing advertising revenue while also saving space—the above newsstand can display three times as many advertisements by using scrolling billboards as it could by using static posted advertisements.


The same newsstand, moments later. Notice that two of the advertisements have changed.

With all of their activity, urban spaces are necessarily places of staticness and dynamism. When we regard urban spaces four-dimensionally, we can see the different time scales at which urban elements operate. At one end of the scale are geographic features (site is eternal!); at the other, the people moving through space. In between are slung all sorts of quirky elements, from cars to parks to monuments to food carts. These elements are quirky because they mix staticness and dynamism: Traffic, for example, is reliably dynamic, static in its dynamism. Food carts offer a dynamic, temporary spatial product by occupying the same location at the same time of day for a set period of time. (This is a theme I’m planning on exploring more in future state-side posts.) From one side, their positioning is static; from the other, dynamic.

These newsstand advertisements fall into the mix, too. Like traffic, they are reliably static in their dynamism. Change is the only constant.


HSBC has a tendency to advertise in or around transit systems—usually airports, but I’ve also seen their ads in the NYC subway. This is advertising as performative demonstration: You say you’re a global bank, but now prove it. And they do, by targeting their advertising to reach self-consciously global consumers, who are, of course, found in transit. In one of their more clever advertising moves, HSBC painted their red line on the outside of airport Jetways. Their ads always show it moving through the world, and the Jetway is a close/appropriate metaphor if you’re trying to breathe physical life into an ephemeral brand.

This is all in the same vein of yesterday’s post: How pools of global capital swirl and concentrate where the return is likely to be greatest, unevenly distributing themselves. These pools are creating an archipelago of global metropoli as they both follow and reinforce a network of global capital. What are the implications for the future (international?) city?


Spotted at CDG baggage claim: An example of actually knowing thy audience. How the flow of people can create transnational islands; how global capital follows economic realities instead of cultural ideals. (Interestingly, this ad may be targeted at Britons, not Americans. Wouldn’t Britons take the Chunnel?)

Note the small, light green text in the lower-right corner of this ad. France is famously devoted to the preservation of its language; the Académie française has attempted to slow or halt the anglicisation of French (with mixed success; I attended a dinner where native French speakers all chattered eagerly about le weekend). France’s Toubon Law, adopted in 1994, mandates the use of French in almost all official or commercial communication, and requires that advertisements in English provide a French translation (as protection for the consumer, of course). Most ads provide the translation as unobtrusively as possible, typically in a footnote, whether the ad is targeted towards French speakers or not. 

Ads in English that are targeted towards the French seem to use English to align themselves with international or transnational ideas (i.e., this product transcends nation) or to make themselves seem advanced or cool. (This is not to say that these two functions are mutually exclusive—one often includes the other.) Many international firms market in English; Phillips—while a Dutch company—runs ads in the Paris Metro promoting its MP3 players, displaying both its slogan and the tagline in English. Local companies, French or Parisian, tend to market in French.

How do we code empire into language? How does our verbal architecture become a battleground where we may express our ideals and discontents? The problems and opportunities of marketing to a bilingual audience. The value of the novel, the impact of the alien.

The dream of every little boy and girl: Their very own Hands-free Ear Light.

Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, or MAYA, is a design axiom meant to capture consumer preference for the familiar. New designs should look new, fresh, like the future incarnate, but shouldn’t be so alien that consumers can’t imagine themselves using one. Hands-free flashlights have been around for decades—think miners’ headlamps—but the Hands-free Ear Light capitalizes on the design, orientation, and use of bluetooth headsets. Why? Because headlamps, while old, weren’t something you’d wear on your ear.

Exaptation, cross-pollination, variables and constants. The magic of cheap labor and economies of scale.

Why this is being sold next to vitaminwater is anyone’s guess.

(Notice also the aisle information sign in the background. Why the cutting trapezoidal shape? A designer’s best guess, or market research at work? I’m guessing the former, but would really like to see a video of the focus group behind the latter. “The rectangle’s just normal, I guess. Trapezoids make me feel kind of cutting-edge.” And on that wisdom, we remodel our worlds.)

Selling ideas, selling concepts: The product is secondary to the ideal, the image, the lifestyle.

The verbal talismans we brandish to keep our monsters away. The useful gnomes we invoke to justify our actions.

To misquote Stalin: One million deaths is a statistic—and one million tragedies.

I left my laptop sitting in the library for a few minutes while I went to get a book and found this flyer next to it when I returned. While similar flyers posted around campus and table tents in our dining halls carry the same message, those are addressed to a plural, general, anonymous audience—this flyer was meant for me, and no one else.

The leaving of this flyer, like the hypothetical theft of my laptop, both have to happen when another person intrudes into my space, into my life.  This is classic show-don’t-tell advertising: Instead of drumming advice into someone’s head, demonstrate to them what might happen if they disregard your advice.

How and where and when do we code our beliefs into our ambient environments? The above cakes engage in an active dialogue with individual consumers through their decorations, a dialogue in which each party contributes to the story of the other. For the consumer, the selection of cake decoration is both a public statement of beliefs and priorities, and an internal statement of aspiration; that is, the decoration both defines and is defined by the person who chooses it.

(In a system in which one must present an image, a narrative, an idea about oneself, there is no way to opt out of the system: Even serving a blank cake sends a message, albeit a quieter one than a topped cake.)

Things are, I think, more interesting for the cake, which doesn’t really care what decoration is put on it. For the cake, all messages are equally valid. The same is true for the corporation selling the cake, as long as the message turns a profit. From the cake’s point of view, a cake is a cake is a cake.

(Might some of these decorations have purely symbolic value? For example, how often does someone order the Bible-and-chalice decoration? Is its inclusion in the book—the cost of printing the page and providing that option—contingent upon the cost of inclusion being less than cost of exclusion i.e. boycotts or angry religious groups?)

But these cakes, by being frosted with their used-under-license perfectly reproduced trademarked images, raise questions about consumer preference in the age of mass production. I happen to be reading Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, by the anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, for a class of mine, and I think these cake decorations are an example of Mintz’s theory of how various forces conspire to compel us to vest the material world with meaning. Mintz writes:

The daily life conditions of consumption have to do with what I called inside meaning; the environing economic, social, and political (even military) conditions with outside meaning. Inside meaning arises when the changes connected with outside meaning are already well under way.

These grand changes ultimately set the outer boundaries for determining hours of work, leisure, and the arrangement of time in relation to the expenditure of human energy. In spite of their significance for everyday life, they originate outside that sphere and on a wholly different level of social action. [… Once these outside conditions are set,] people alter the micro-conditions as much as they can and according to their emerging preferences—the where, when, how, with whom, with what, and why—thereby changing what the things in question signify, what they mean to the users. New behaviors are superimposed upon older behaviors; some behavioral features are retained, others forgotten. New patterns replace older ones. [1996, 20-21. Italics original, emphasis added.]

In this case, the rise of a national popular media culture (shared recognition of sports teams, fictional iconography, television characters, etc.), coupled with the adoption of standardized franchise business models, along with the decline in cost of edible printing technology and its according widespread adoption, conspire to enable a set of circumstances inside of which consumers are ultimately able to vest the end-products (cakes) with individualized and specific meaning.

These cakes take the same form and are put to the same use as earlier, more traditional or conventional birthday cakes, allowing consumers to shift what they consume without shifting how they consume it. New behaviors are thereby superimposed on old as the new type of cake is dropped into an existing paradigm of celebration.

The big question is: How is the idea of the birthday affected by the image on the cake? Does the image co-opt and overpower the traditional meaning of the birthday, or does the birthday simply make a minor adjustment to accommodate a cosmetic change?

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