Attack of the Killer Billboards: Part 2
Last week I expressed my dismay with the decision of my adopted city of Lyon to provide outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux with apparent carte blanche to plaster the historic downtown area with ultra-modern sliding billboards, in exchange for installing and maintaining an extensive network of free bicycle stations. It was my frustration with this mushroom-like overnight proliferation of intrusive signage that prompted my interest in a recent book from Mark Batty Publisher that held out the promise of a grass-roots movement from those who have had their fill of the global trend to make our common urban spaces little more than an opportunity to bombard us with product pitches.
I held out high hopes for Talk Back: The Bubble Project, a book from the New York-based designer Ji Lee, who after graduating from Parsons The New School for Design put in a four-year stint with Saatchi & Saatchi before going independant. Lee recently came up with something called The Bubble Project, the origins of which he describes in these words: "The Bubble Project is a reaction to the growing media bombardment and their lame messages we are forced to face everyday. I wanted to create a simple device which would transform these ads instantly into something interactive, fun and open for everyone."
You have to admit that it's an interesting position to take, although it doesn't seem to be that far off from someone who works for an armament company bemoaning civilian casualties. In the book, Lee declares that "Our communual spaces are overrun with ads. Buildings, bus stops, phone booths and subways scream one message after another at us. Once considered "public," these spaces are increasongly being seized by corporations to propagate their messages solely in the interest of profit."
Solely in the interest of profit? Say it ain't so, Lee.
He continues in the same vein: "Armed with heavy budgets, their marketing tactics are becoming more and more aggressive and manipulative. We, the public, are both targets and victims of this media attack." What are we to make of this, that Lee has recanted and is now on "our" side, after years as agency insider?
Lee apparently printed 30,000 blank "bubble" stickers and has been plastering them on New York advertising panels, returning later to photograph comments added by passersby. One then has to assume that the book highlights the best of these. But the problem is that the anonymous comments are without exception even lamer than the advertising they are ostensibly skewering. They become just one more unwanted, "lame" message thrust at the urban inhabitant.
This is what I found the saddest aspect of a project that seems to be essentially little more than another self-promotional effort masquerading as something more significant. This has not stopped the mainstream media from picking up on The Bubble Project as a "story," as best shown by a recent item on ABC World News, which shows Lee happily playing the role of the countercounture artist by dessing up for the cameras as the Old Man of the Mountain, from the Betty Boop cartoon.
The role of the designer in how our urban space is shaped is an important one, as is the degree to which corporate entities should be given free rein to market products. Unfortunately, The Bubble Project, and the accompanying book, has little of a constructive nature to contribute to these topics.