My subway epiphany came when I moved back to New York after a seven-year absence in the early 1990s. In the time I had been away, the subways had been vastly improved, and were no longer a place of thoroughgoing menace. The interior surfaces of the well-ventilated car I rode in were gleaming and graffiti-free – nothing at all like the trains I encountered when I first arrived in the city in 1980.
But something about the ads in that clean modern subway car struck a discordant note. I fixed on a poster that jointly advertised the services of a neurologist and a podiatrist, which struck me as a strange juxtaposition of medical specialties. “PAIN?” read the heading of the neurologist’s ad, while the podiatrist’s side of the poster read “FOOT PAIN?” Pain from head to toe.
So I perused the other posters in the car, and noticed that nearly all the advertising unambiguously addressed physical discomfort. There were other ads promising relief from soreness of the back and feet, others that hawked painful medical procedures such as abortions, orthodontics, an eyeball operation called a radial keratotomy that I imagined was right out of Un Chien Andalou, and the dermatological treatment of warts, psoriasis, moles, rashes, tumors, and growths. Another poster read “Get Ahead of Lead,” a snappy motto exhorting subway riders to, come on folks, at least try to keep the kids from poisoning themselves. Near that, I saw an ad for lawyers who would get you cash money if lead poisoning had scrambled your children’s brains. Then there was an announcement from New York City Transit, incorporating photographs of happy youngsters and the words “Stroller Safety,” which had me imagining the unhappy convergence of smiling tykes, stroller-pushing bumblers, and the hurtling locomotives of New York City Transit.
This seemed like an awful lot of pain for just one subway car.
The sole counterpoints to the pain advertisements were those that revolved around failure – ads for vocational schools, government assistance programs, drug rehab, and so forth, all targeted at the struggling and/or discontented.
Finally, there was the one ad in the corner that promised relief from it all – a drawing of a Cossack, the face of rotgut Georgi Vodka. Ubiquitous on the subway, he winked conspiratorially the subway rider, as if to tell us: “You know you’re getting drunk alone tonight, so why not give yourself a big Kennedy pour of Georgi – the cheapest!”
Pain and failure – this seemed to be all subway advertising was about, as if there was no point in trying to reach the subway rider about any other topic. After my epiphany, I started viewing all subway advertising through that lens, and even developed a standard to guide my observations and give them a pseudo-anthropological sheen. Pain would encompass a subway ad about any of the following:
- Medical procedures
- Poetry in Motion
Failure I defined as:
- Treatment programs for drinking too much booze
- Vocational schools
- Government assistance programs
- Posters publicizing events that have already taken place
- Any New York City Transit promotion that encourages more riding of the subways.
By using this (admittedly flexible) system, I found I could classify 90 percent of all subway advertisements as being about either pain or failure. I even turned it into a game I could play with friends, kind of like the family car trip classic of trying to spot out-of-state license plates – except with the Subway Game you try to find the ads that are not about either discomfort or dissipation.
In the last decade or so, much happened to alter the subway experience – the Metrocard, investment in equipment and infrastructure, the fruits of “broken windows” policing, and the palpable fear of terrorist mass murder. During that time, someone else obviously noticed that nearly all advertisements focused on pain and failure, someone with big ideas and clout. This utopian tried to revamp the status quo by introducing colorful banner advertising, with snappy copy and eye-catching graphics that would lift a captive audience of subway riders out of their torpor.
Tellingly, the first campaign that really seemed to capture the public imagination advertised antibacterial formula Tide. The vibrant posters alerted the inveterate subway rider to the presence of the invertebrate subway rider – millions and millions of microbes swarming all over the clackety-clacking petri dishes of New York City Transit. And if our subway friend, the peripatetic Mr. Shabby, happened to be riding in the same car, for the people at Proctor & Gamble the only advertising ploy as effective would be lobbing rancid polecats into people’s apartments while Tide television commercials played on every channel.
For a few years, the marketing folks at New York City Transit seemed determined not to let old advertising reclaim the subway the way the Central American jungle overgrew Copan. During that time, one might have never been aware, for example, that torn ear lobes remained a big problem in this city. Even those ads that dealt with subway staples like pain-numbing booze were sanitized – banished was the winking Georgi Cossack, replaced by smiling, healthy-looking urbanites with 80s hair and clothes drinking top-shelf liquor in social settings, instead of alone from a shatterproof plastic bottle at a kitchen table beneath a naked light bulb.
Retailers like Target came on board, as did auto manufacturers, designers, and tourist boards eager to tell you that there were nicer places to be than on the subway. Our Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, takes the train to work. True, advertisements from various social service agencies did touch on subterranean perennials such as drug abuse, violent crime, STDs, homelessness, domestic violence, lead paint snack chips, and other sundry Gotham vexations – but they did so in a way that implied that a positive resolution to these catastrophes could comprise something other than legal action undertaken on the victim’s behalf by an attorney named Shaevitz.
Though New York City Transit has tried to keep up with its program of upscaling its advertising, clearly there has been some backsliding over the last few years. Nowadays, despite years of bold advertising campaigns, you’re likely as not to find yourself in a subway car where photocopied flyers for a psychic in Bushwick are wedged in the sad gaps between ads for vocational schools and already-canceled television programs. Marketing glitz seems to have been a puny weapon with which fight the immutable Stygian spirit of the subways.
What, I wondered, had started the return to a state of nature? The more I thought about it, I became certain that it could only have been this 9/11 message to New York: “Doctor and Mrs. Zizmor Salute New Yorkers for Their Strength and Courage.” I know – lazy writers have counted on getting laughs simply by typing the name ‘Zizmor,’ the way comics once banked on getting laughs by saying ‘airline food.’ But think about it for a moment. You want pain? The ad was from a pimple squeezer commemorating 9/11, the most painful day in New York history. You want failure? The ad first appeared 21 months after the 9/11 attacks, and replaced the twin towers on the skyline with a dermatologist who looks like a naked mole rat and his wraithlike wife wearing a wide-brimmed hat that looked like a mushroom cloud over Lower Manhattan. You want a little more failure? The ad remained on display long after Dr. Zizmor’s widely-publicized indictment for billing irregularities.
If that ad was the equivalent of giving a recovering alcoholic the shot of whiskey that starts the downward spiral to the gutter, I’ll tell you the moment I realized that the battle had been lost. Last summer, I was sitting on the R train and noticed two banners featuring little men.
The first little man was featured in the message from New York City Transit regarding subway evacuation, which, after the bombings in London, Madrid, and Bombay, is ever on the mind of the average subway rider. What makes it special is that New York City Transit has come up with its own “Little Subway Evacuation Man” logo – a stick figure fleeing in terror as cartoon flames lap against his ass. If the logo of a little man on the men’s room door replaces the word “MEN’S,” what does the Little Subway Evacuation Man logo replace – the words “IF BATSHIT CRAZY TERRORISTS BLOW THE ROOF OFF THIS MOTHERSUCKER AND YOU’RE LEFT STANDING, RUN FOR YOUR LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!”? To add insult to the specter of death, Little Subway Evacuation Man even occupies the place of honor at the end of each car once held by the winking Georgi Cossack, whose friendly invitation to cirrhosis now seems a relic of a bygone era.
But it was the second little man that really got me. He appeared in an ad for the Bodies show at South Street Seaport, the popular exhibition of pickled corpses obtained in the People’s Republic of China. For a second, forget the possibility that the corpse in the picture might be the remains of the guy who stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square, put on display by the Red Chinese as a warning against political dissent. Focus instead on the simple fact that this was an image of a skinned and gutted human being – on display not as science, but as entertainment for the masses or maybe porno for serial killers, or maybe to remind you how you might look if you don’t run as fast as Little Subway Evacuation Man during an emergency. Not only that, there was a promotional tie-in with New York City Transit: reduced admission if you show your Metrocard!
This had to be the ultimate underground ad of all time: take the subway to see cadavers, with a discount for the working stiffs who ride the rails. In my pantheon of effective, site-appropriate marketing, it replaced the subway banner I believed would never be topped – the mid-80s roach motel ad that showed a heavyset Latina, her face contorted with surprise and disgust as she realized that cucarachas had nestled between the bristles of her toothbrush in the middle of the night.
The advertising on the subways seems more and more like a larger failure on the part of the ridership as a whole. We should be able to expect more while taking the train. Granted, the defining subway experience is being on a local train as it enters the station and seeing the waiting express train shut its doors and lumber away. The subway is a place where triumph is defined as being on the express train as it pulls away, not on the local. Where sensual pleasure is the feeling when, as you stand on a sweltering underground platform, you feel the first wisps of air stirred by an approaching train, cool on your clammy crotch sweat, and experience it as refreshing instead of the foul sirocco of PCBs and rat farts that it is in fact.
Although the subway is a place of meager pleasures, an advertiser still has a captive audience composed of millions of people from virtually every ethnic background and socioeconomic class. And yet, New York City Transit can’t sell enough positive advertising on its subways. Advertisers have largely given up on reaching this audience whose entire consciousness is focused on its own agony and shortcomings. We subway riders are people whose feet hurt, heads ache, are depressed, who have torn earlobes, thinning hair, unsightly blemishes, drinking problems, and financial difficulties, who watch too much bad television and try to sleep on sofabeds in cramped apartments.
That’s all we know on Earth and, in the opinion of advertisers, all we need to know.
Albert Stern lives in Brooklyn and performs monologues at venues such Speakeasy Stories. His previous essay on this site, The Circle Be Unbroken, was about Adam Purple and enlightenment.