The Adscape

by Craig Chanin

Our mayor was a doer and our city was deep in the red. He held a press conference and announced that he wanted to open the city’s sidewalks to advertising. Initially the proposal sounded egregious and desperate, but after the mayor’s repeated calls to revitalize our city streets, and after his suave and choice similes–first likening the sidewalks to untapped resources, then to unused billboards, and finally to untouched canvases–many of us considered the plan a reasonable response to our city’s fiscal problems.

That evening all the news anchors began their broadcasts recapping the mayor’s announcement. Next came the reporters interviewing people on the street. A twenty-something man wearing large headphones around his neck said, “Ads on the sidewalk?  Now you don’t have to be bored walking down the street, cool.’ A thin, middle-aged woman, her hair dyed jet black, said, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people found a way to take even sidewalks for granted.’ Reporters pointed out that opponents to the mayor’s plan had already spray painted protest slogans on the sidewalk: “Not For Sale!’ “Save Our Sidewalks!’ “Mayor MAY NOT!’

The following morning large multinational conglomerates and corporations began a bidding war on the sidewalks, and after the mayor announced the large seven-figure sums that the most-choice blocks fetched, the city council immediately convened to legislate, draft, and pass the necessary ordinances to enact the mayor’s proposal. The city drew up contracts. It treated the sidewalks as rentable property and sold leases and required payment in full prior to the renter beginning work on the advertisement; when the lease’s term was reached, the city retained the right to raise the rent, create a new auction, or sell to a new party.              

A buyer existed for every lease the mayor’s office drew up, and each day new advertisements appeared. Many local businesses bought single sidewalk slabs and had catchphrases printed in bold, large, capital lettering atop the off-white concrete:

WATCH WHERE YOU’RE WALKING AND HEAD OVER TO DINGLES SPORTING GOODS.

LOOK OUT BELOW–SMARTAID PHARMACY!  

DON’T TREAD ON ME WITHOUT READING: THERE’S ALWAYS A DEAL AT MR. & MRS. HOMEGOOD’S.  

THE WRITING IS ON THE SIDEWALK: SHAYNA MAIDEL IS THE CITY’S BEST DELI.  

Other ads gave directions.  Pedestrians walking with their heads bowed read, WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE ROAD? TO GET TO HOBERT’S ELECTRONICS, and looking up they saw Hobert’s across the street, with people streaming into the store and others coming out, carrying large cardboard boxes. Even the Army took out ad space: YOUR LEFT, YOUR LEFT, YOUR LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT TO YOUR NEAREST ARMY CAREER CENTER.  This appeared on numerous blocks (we were, after all, in a protracted peacekeeping-mission overseas) and, indeed, each time a citizen read the ad and followed its directions, turning left at the next three blocks, a right after that, and then one more left, that brave freedom lover came to a large, street-level storefront, whose rectangular window was covered in an enormous version of the armed forces insignia: a bayoneted rifle running between a crossed sword and spear, forming a six pointed star.

Large corporations rented multiple slabs and had much more elaborate advertisements, sometimes covering half a block, or even an entire one. Rather than simple copy printed on the concrete, we saw colorful, detailed images. Gone was the off-white concrete beneath our feet. An ad for Royal Rex Timepieces showed a nacre watch-face with beveled crystal hands and silver plated Roman numerals. The copy read, “You can’t stop time, but you can watch it go in style.’ Logos and brand mascots decorated the sidewalks as well: we saw Haute Haute Couture Couture!’s upside down, fluorescent-pink fleur-de-lis, and the famous stick-legged red bullhorn, whose grandiose claim, “Follow me for the lowest insurance rates in the universe!’ was in a thought bubble.  

Naturally, we slowed our pace to read the copy and view the images; when we saw people gathered around a slab, heads bowed and shoulders shaking with laughter, or heads bowed and nodding in agreement, we stepped to them and nudged a place for ourselves; it didn’t matter that we had meant to cross the street, that we had to get somewhere, and it was in this very way that the pace of our lives and the city itself changed. A general lack of punctuality pervaded. We found ourselves arriving late for business luncheons, only to wait for our company, and when we arrived well past the start time of operas, lectures, or sporting events we learned that the talent, along with the ticket takers and ushers, too, had yet to step on site.

Not everyone accepted these changes. We listened to the point argued aggressively across tables at dinner parties. We received emails and texts from family, friends, and coworkers lamenting our support of the ads. (The texts were usually an immediate response, composed on the spot, while seeing people clustered about a slab; the emails, however, were typically the product of long and furious ruminations.) We heard critics call into CPR, City Public Radio. They railed at the sidewalk advertising, calling it “aggro-tising’ and referred to the city’s sidewalks as “sideshow sidewalks.’ They criticized us for walking with our heads down and insisted that they would continue to walk with their heads raised. They were most fastidious about this point, ever refusing to step aside and avoid a collision when they saw us, heads bowed, walking slowly toward them. They also took to storming through crowds and stomping on ads, yelling, “Do something!’ or “Don’t just stand there!’ or “It’s a sidewalk for God’s sake–-walk!’  Indeed, they were bold and rash. To them it somehow didn’t matter that retailers had begun posting increased profits, nor that the mayor had sold nearly every slab on every block and the city had gained sudden and considerable revenue.  When a celebrated downtown art gallery took its paintings and photographs off the walls and placed them on the floor, beneath a clear, thick layer of acrylic, we heard how this was truly a regrettable example of life imitating art.

Advertisers encouraged the mayor to consider opening new, unthought-of spaces. The City Herald reported that the mayor was meeting with the Police Department about an advertising initiative that might underwrite the entire force. Naturally, we speculated about what kind of ad campaign this might be; some suggested we’d see patrol cars covered in logos, like stock racers; others expected to see patches displaying brand names alongside the badge, stripes, and medals on officer uniforms. Another city newspaper, The Daily Ledger, reported that the mayor was also speaking with the Transportation Department. At this, some expected the mayor to announce he was going to rent the roads, after the sidewalks this seemed inevitable and reasonable. Now we imagined ad-covered roads and saw images, like a massive fishnet-stockinged woman’s leg, bent slightly at the knee and sporting a red patent-leather high heel, stretching across three lanes. Such visions seemed conservative after The Financial Post quoted an ad exec whose firm had presented the mayor with red traffic lights that could project ads onto the windshields of stopped cars at night.

Finally, the mayor held a press conference to announce his next plan. All we had envisioned and discussed, no matter how elaborate or extreme, whether we were sober or intoxicated, never touched such invention. The mayor had created an entirely new space in the city, one he named the Lower City Skyline. This, he told us, was the empty airy passage above the street lamps but below the roof of our lowest building. The mayor asked us to imagine, with him, an aerial pageant that floated, flew, flowed, and paraded through the Lower City Skyline, visible from sidewalk, crosswalk, terrace, office and apartment window. He drew a breath. He reminded us of his promise to balance the budget.

His office released an RFP, asking for, “The means whereby the aerial passageway twenty-five feet directly above the sidewalk on every city street and avenue might best be used in a manner that’s safe and effective for continuous advertising.’ This technical description, vague yet specific, wordy yet concise, called to our minds a metropolis of the future, one where a network of flying objects was in constant motion overhead. Those who had opposed the sidewalk ads decried the new proposal and described it as stealing the sky. The mayor, hearing this, remarked that his critics appeared to have hired an advertising firm. Indeed, an advertiser’s hand seemed present in the protestors’ very pronunciation of their pronouncements: the protestors took to calling the mayor’s plan a misadventure, always stressing that word’s second syllable. The mayor then called the protestors his adversaries. When the mayor announced that the Flying Advertisement, or FAD–a drone craft modeled to the shape of any logo, product, or brand mascot–had won the Lower-City-Skyline proposal, he concluded, “I’m interested in adding to the city’s value, not subtracting from it.’

Soon FADs flew over our heads, presenting sports cars, 1-800 numbers for lawyers, beer bottles dotted with condensation, yachts, smiling faces of game show hosts, toothpaste tubes, a spread open Softy Soft Diaper that many people mistook for a low-hanging cumulus cloud, a sign that read, “It’ll Be Friday Soon, But Until Then There’s O’Holleran’s’, The Nation’s Number One Candy Bar:  Chew!, The World’s Favorite Candy Bar: Chomp!!, and The Galaxy’s Greatest Candy Bar: Champ!!!, spray bottles of the household cleaners Dust Away!, Clean It!, and LIKE NEW!, cellphones whose screens read “Mom Calling’, “The Boss Calling’, or “The One Calling!’, and a bottle of ESTADE, “The Best Sports Drink’.

We walked gazing up, mesmerized, pointing our fingers and phones at them; we stared at them through office and apartment windows, mesmerized. Advertisers hailed the FADs as the greatest invention since the TV commercial. Indeed, store aisles had grown more crowded: during our own quests for some desired object we often found ourselves scooching between rows of strangers who were themselves reaching for a box on a shelf. Then there was the interminable wait to own: lines before cash registers were now twenty minute affairs. Apartments and offices had become noticeably cluttered with new purchases. It wasn’t uncommon to see a collection of floor lamps in a living room, each one standing next to the other, like suspects in a line up, or to arrive at a boardroom and see the walls covered with TVs of various sizes and makes, and each one broadcasting a different news channel. Business owners extolled the mayor’s commitment to bettering city businesses (clearly he had their vote when the next election cycle came), and the city’s accountants began to publicly speak, in saucy tones no less, of the ever-fading red ink and the inevitable penning in black.

But then pigeons began colliding with the FADs. One, launching upward, impaled itself on a massive high heel, while another, coursing through the air, slammed into a large laptop computer, striking the huge LED screen and sliding down it, leaving a streak of dark red. When the pigeon collapsed onto the giant keyboard, its body pressed down on four consecutive keys and the word “wert’ appeared on the screen. Meanwhile other pigeons fell lifeless to the sidewalk or onto the hoods of parked cars and, in a few cases, struck a pedestrian’s head. The city quickly employed men and women, providing them with inconspicuous formal attire, suits and skirts colored black and gray (this made them seem mere pedestrians), and outfitted them with collapsible brooms and dust bins that they hastily drew from brief cases and purses to sweep away the dead pigeons. This, while an expedient solution, did not solve the problem the pigeons created: by striking the FADs and landing lifeless atop the sidewalk ads–with their small heads awkwardly turned to one side, their tiny-beaded eyes staring sightlessly, and their beaks just open–they called attention to all we wished not to think about; it was as though their carcasses were advertisements for unforeseen error, the peacekeeping-mission overseas, animal cruelty. If initially we turned away from the FADs when we saw a collision, we now stopped looking at them, and the sidewalk ads, entirely.

The mayor was besieged. Businesses hired lawyers to ensure that the mayor ensure they    sustain no financial loss, while those of us who had supported the mayor’s plan, through buying products to pay city taxes to help the city accrue its needed revenues, were utterly opposed to this–we were not about to lose the money we spent. It was also at this very moment that the mayor’s critics hired an advertising firm to help them better craft and package their protest.  They were unabashed about this, admitting it on TV, in newspapers, on blogs, and in conversations; they claimed they felt there was no other way to communicate with us, their neighbors, coworkers, and family members. Some of us wondered if that was a crafted sentiment, and as we pondered this we saw that already the opposition had gotten us to consider what they had said, which, after all, is what an ad is supposed to do. When we thought about the comment itself, that we had become so inured to ads that the only way to communicate with us was through the language of copy, we summarily dismissed it.  

The messages that followed, however, were much more clearly ads. Numerous celebrities began to publicly support the opposition. A famous couple, who owned the most expensive penthouse apartment in our city, said, from a film festival in southern France, that they wouldn’t return until the mayor took down the FADs. The captain of the city’s baseball team signed autographs, Save the PIGEONS! A celebrated fashion designer showcased a line of gray feathered dresses: models strutted down the catwalk and, with each assured high-heeled step, the feathers fluttered about their slim bodies. A commercial aired, showing, in slow motion, close-up shots of street sweepers’ brooms brushing dead pigeons into black dustbins. Doleful instrumental music played. The next shot showed a pigeon tumbling beak over tail feathers toward the ground, as a voice said, “This is the foul repercussion of the mayor’s plan.’  

The mayor’s response to all this was a jest: at the governor’s ball, while making a toast, he offered his critics a discount on a sidewalk ad. Perhaps it was the fine food on the fine china and the fine wine and all the fine people wearing their finest attire that allowed us to heartily laugh through the chandeliered banquet hall.

While the celebrities certainly influenced some people, we weren’t taken. We understood that the opposition had hired them to endorse their protest. It took a much more complex and important claim, namely, that the mayor was actually much further from balancing the budget than we all believed, for us to question our support. Economists, accountants, and professors claimed that the mayor would need to open up many more ad-spaces to right the city’s books. People imagined our city without a single ad-free space–streetlamp posts, fire hydrants, building facades, the parks’ grassy fields, and even the old, out-of-order pay phones, were all sellable. The opposition called this environment of total advertising “The Adscape.’

The mayor took seriously the critique of his economic policies and uploaded a video addressing this very issue onto the city’s website. He sat behind his new, mahogany desk, his hands clasped before him, to his right a small American flag rose from a large mug that bore the city’s seal. The mayor spoke simply and seriously. He invited his critics to choose a representative to debate him live on TV. He said that he wished to frankly discuss his policies’ economic facts and his plan to handle the pigeons.  

The opposition agreed to the debate, though it was impossible to tell if they did this because they were confident of their critique or aware that not to debate was to admit, albeit indirectly, that their claims were merely superficial.  Here we saw the shrewdness of our mayor.  Here was the man we had elected. His critics, however, argued that it was their opposition that forced him to suggest the debate, and that he was the one constrained to act, not them. Here, the opposition exuded confidence. Perhaps this was merely an effect of their ad-like style of protesting, which allowed them to speak seriously about the mayor in a flippant manner, describing his polices as “pigeonholing the city’s economy’ and “killing more than two birds with one stone.’

The mayor seemed to allow these comments to pass without firing back.  It wasn’t until the morning of the debate, while the stagehands were hanging the city’s seal behind the round table, and the director was making sure that the overhead lighting was just right, that the mayor’s first deputy tweeted, “To the critics: fair is foul, foul is fair: you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.’ Mere seconds later the comment was retweeted to every city newspaper, news channel, and opposition Twitter account; within minutes the comment was trending and comments commenting on the comment were trending:

“This is shameless copy advertising true heartlessness.’  

“This is an honest advertisement of who the mayor is.’  

“An ad promoting animal cruelty.’

The first deputy’s comment appeared amid the ticker tape stream of news-bits running along the bottom of our TV screens, while reporters discussed the recent challenges facing the overseas-peacekeeping operation. We stopped listening to those reports, much preferring to think about the comment instead.

The news reported that the mayor planned to hold a press conference before the debate to address the comment, and soon after that, amid clicking cameras, the mayor announced he had decided to dismiss his first deputy. The mayor underscored that words very much matter. If they didn’t, he insisted, then advertising itself would have no value. He then reminded us that we experienced the value of advertising all around us: we saw it in the new hybrid buses and taxis; we tasted it when we drank the newly achieved high-quality tap water; and we learned about it when we read the newly planned urban projects advertised on the city’s website. The mayor insisted his first deputy’s comments did not reflect his feelings about the city’s indigenous wildlife. He did, however, see the comment as strikingly similar to many his critics had made and, while he understood that his deputy was trying to make a point about how inappropriate and ineffective such language is, he, nevertheless, wished to protest and critique the use of flippant, advertising-styled expressions when attempting to discuss difficult and serious problems. The mayor added that as part of his protest he was canceling his participation in the evening’s debate.  He said that when the opposition was willing to discuss the issue appropriately he would willingly have the conversation. There was, he reflected, a great difference between selling a product and solving a problem. The mayor said he would now solve the problem. The mayor said he believed his message was clear and that he was going to end the press conference here, without taking any questions.    

We, of course, supported the mayor’s protest. Those who didn’t said that anyone who called the mayor’s protest a protest had no respect for language. Well, we then looked those people in the eye and said the mayor’s refusal to debate was a form of political protest. Their gibe and our retort were both, somehow, in the air; as were stories that the mayor had staged his first deputy’s comment and its dissemination, and that he had even hired an advertising firm to invent the opposition. Either scenario made the mayor look good.  

While we argued, the mayor held a second press conference (we learned about this much later), and he announced that he had rented the sky and the curbs: jets were soon to skywrite promotional codes, while TVs, standing eye level atop poles, were to line the curbs and broadcast the heavenly messages.

That afternoon was clear and bright and when we stepped out for lunch we heard, amid the crowded sidewalk, a loud, gruff, insistent voice yell, “Heads up!’ and we saw a famous football player, uniformed and fully padded, dive with outstretched arms to catch a falling pigeon.  He slammed against the pavement, but held, just above the concrete, a pigeon cupped between his large hands.  The bird’s head hung backward upon its small neck.  We cheered immediately and instinctually, raising our hands, shaking our fists, letting out cries of, “Nice one!’, “Yeah!’, and “Did you just see that?’  The massive athlete stood up and shook his helmeted head once. He tucked the bird against his chest, like a football, and began jogging down the path we all cleared for him. We clapped the sports star on the back as he passed us and we watched him walk toward the trashcan at the corner.  

Once our adrenaline faded we noticed, just up the block, a group of attractive women dressed in short, tight skirts, with hems that touched the tops of their thighs, and open blouses that formed a wide V-shape on their chests. We walked toward these women and lingered near them, feigning interest in the sidewalk ads closest to their high heels and fishnet-stockinged legs. We desired to overhear what such women said, and they, as though aware of our wish, spoke louder. We heard them–above the noise of nearby conversations and car radios blaring from open windows–discussing their favorite brand of men’s jeans, the best beard dye, and the most attractive colognes. We passed a team of construction workers, all brawny, tan fellows who sported five o’clock shadows and wore bright-yellow hard hats, reflective vests over white wife-beaters, stonewashed jeans and dusty work boots, and we listened to them whistle the well- known jingles of household cleaners at passing women. Suddenly, a police officer chased a masked man down the sidewalk and yelled, “Halt! Coming this summer to a theater near you!’  

We looked across the street to see if other blocks were as exciting–and they were: on one a football player leapt onto the hood of a parked car, while on another one jumped atop the base of a street lamp and, holding onto the tall sliver post with one hand, stretched out his other and caught a pigeon. Indeed, we heard cheers erupt from every block. The mayor has taken care of the pigeons; once again we can look at our sky; once again we can look at our sidewalks; the budget will be balanced soon, maybe later today or tomorrow. When the mayor first proposed renting the sidewalks he said he wanted to revitalize our streets. He did that. He is a man you can trust.