How Advertising Conquered Urban Space

“I’m still flying at four thousand feet when I see it, that scarcely perceptible glow, as though the moon had rushed ahead of schedule. Paris is rising over the edge of the earth.”

At the end of his grueling 33-hour solo flight over the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh was searching for the airport, north of the French capital, on which to land the Spirit of St. Louis. The pilot would recall the unconventional but dazzling navigation aid he used: “Far below, a little offset from the center, is a column of lights pointing upward, changing angles as I fly—the Eiffel Tower. I circle once above it and turn north-eastward.”

In those days, the Eiffel Tower was less a solitary beacon and more a constellation. It was illuminated by 250,000 light bulbs, spelling out the word Citroën. From 1925 to 1934, this symbol of Paris—and indeed of modernity itself—was a colossal advertisement for a company, helmed by a former arms manufacturer, that was headed for bankruptcy.

From 1925 to 1934, the Eiffel Tower displayed an ad for carmaker Citroën, spelled out in 250,000 light bulbs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Advertisements tell us about much more than the products and services they promote. They tell us about desire, how it changes, and how it and thus we are manipulated. Like many revelatory urban features, advertising signage is ubiquitous to the point of becoming almost invisible. Yet we read cities as much as we inhabit and traverse them.

In cinematic aerial footage of cities, we are often presented with the blank facades of skyscrapers. But the closer to street level we get, the closer to the part of the city we navigate, we find that cities are a riot of lettering and symbols. The city itself is a form of visual language. Advertising is everywhere. It is a pictorial cacophony that we’ve grown used to.

We are not as immune as we might think to its powers. It reflects who we are, or want to be, while threatening to overwhelm us. And yet, often despite itself, it can connect us to the past, to the local, and to senses of meaning.

How to stand out in a visual cacophony

The first aim of signage is to stand out. Grabbing the attention of passersby was easier in the past, when there were fewer signs. Competition, however, has long been fierce. Ingenuity has always been required to gain an edge.

In the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, archaeologists found revealing signs on buildings—a dairy was marked by an engraving of a goat, a stonemason by tools, a wine merchant by two figures hauling an amphora jug, presumably full of wine.

This sign in Pompeii, showing two figures carrying an amphora, is thought to have advertised a wine shop. (Arne Baruldsen/Shutterstock)

In Japan, shop signs known as kanban were often carved out of wood or bamboo. They served a similar purpose as their Roman equivalents: Combs, vegetables, swords, and wigs, among other objects, informed citizens of the wares on sale. But they were sometimes presented with such decorative skill and attention—for instance, a gold-lacquered carp leaping into a waterfall, representing a pharmacist—that they became works of art.  

Due to their intrusive quality, signs can arouse irritation as much as curiosity. In Daniel Defoe’s novel A Journal of the Plague Year, he laments one of the side-effects of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665. “[A] wicked generation of pretenders to magic” made their fortunes in superstition, and

this trade grew so open and so generally practiced that it became common to have signs and inscriptions set up at doors: “here lives a fortune-teller,” “here lives an astrologer,” “here you may have your nativity calculated,” and the like …

There were more risks than the exploitation of credulity. The craze in London for hanging signs resulted in accidents, such as one in 1718 in Bride Street, when four people were killed by a falling sign that pulled part of the facade off the building. This resulted in periods when such signage was banned in England.

The Golden Fleece pub in York, England, with a gilded sheep hanging out front, dates back to the early 16th century or earlier. (Pres Panayotov/Shutterstock)

By the 19th century, advertising had colonized cities. In earlier times, the cacophony of salespeople had been audio, as encapsulated by Hogarth’s as the zenith, or nadir, of this approach. Flashing neon motel signs grabbed the attention of drivers and relied on their impulsivity. Signs became huge to stand out at cruising speed—often surpassing, and outliving, the buildings they represented (“the big sign and the little building is the rule of Route 66”).

The Vegas Strip in the early 1980s. In the automobile age, signs got bigger so that drivers traveling at high speeds wouldn’t miss them. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

As long, straight highways crossed the desert toward the city, advertisers gained space and time to create narratives, through the use of staggered signs and doggerel that would gradually unfold as cars passed. Burma Shave was a famous example, with ditties like, “Our fortune / Is your / Shaven face / It’s our best / Advertising space / Burma-Shave,” and “Don’t take / a curve / at 60 per / We hate to lose / a customer / Burma-Shave.”

With the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the U.S. government attempted to legislate against what was seen as visual pollution. While this affected small businesses, who’d made roadside and barn signage an unlikely form of outsider art, it ultimately did little to halt the advance of corporate advertising. Ever more elaborate ways of gaining and holding the public’s interest continued to unfold, like (1937), African Americans queue at a flood-relief agency underneath a billboard—featuring a jubilant middle-class white family straight out of Hollywood schlock—that announces, “There’s no way like the American way.” The image was still prescient enough to be used as the basis for the cover of Curtis Mayfield’s album There’s No Place Like America Today (1975).

Perhaps it is relevant still. At some point, advertisers move from the supply of services and products to the manufacture of insatiable desires and statuses that they cannot or will not help people attain. The images in the billboards may be beautiful, tantalizingly so, but there is a difference, and even an antagonism, between beauty and truth.

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