Yet again, a train broke down on my line this morning, and the train company sent us on a long diversion via the Tube system instead. London Tube trains have, predictably, a continuous strip of advertising above the windows, with which to regale their captive audience. In almost every circumstance, I avoid viewing unsolicited adverts like the plague. Today I found myself reading one - a dull, smug, boring one at that - and abruptly wondering why.
The answer came immediately, and raised an interesting question about the commercial value of poetry.
Most advertising venues are guaranteed to display nothing I wish to see. This is to be expected. Advertising - pestering people to change their preferences - is almost universally regarded as a bad by its targets. This is why the chief way to get large audiences for it, is to bundle it with some greater good such as television programming or free net content. A degraded version of this is the attempt to hijack people's attention, via thumping great billboards as they walk down the public street, or adverts plastered all over the physical structure of the private mass transit they have already paid to use.
The obvious counter is not to look at it on purpose (unless one is so bored, or the advert is so entertaining, that one is actually getting something out of it), and possibly also to cultivate a sharply negative reaction to any mindspammer whose shock or saturation tactics somehow penetrate one's shields. More active countermeasures, such as culturejamming, will occur to those provoked enough to bother with them.
But there is an alternative to this uncivil arms race between advertisers and passengers, and London Underground deploys this too. Not all of the advertising slots are filled with advertising. A small but significant proportion of them are filled instead with unsponsored 'Poems on the Underground'. Some of these are recent, some classic, some of both are translations which will be unfamiliar to most English readers. The overall quality is rather high. This is presented, and subsidized, as a beautifying and civilizing public service. I have no doubt that this is exactly how its originator - the writer Judith Chernaik, who with poets Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson continues to make selections for it today - views it.
The managers might not have approved this project in the absence of a public subsidy for it. If they had so approved it, they might well have done so in the spirit of a public relations expense, or a cost of improving the passenger environment. I think there is another, and hidden, sort of value being added here.
Because I enjoy poetry more than I hate advertising, I now automatically scan the advert frieze in the hope of finding some. Occasionally, my brain will fail, and I will find myself reading an advert instead by accident. Even when I am alert, the scan will draw my attention to any advert in which I might, improbably, be actually interested. Thus, the presence of gratuitous art in a few advertising slots significantly increases the viewing of the whole, and therefore presumably its value to the advertisers. Poetry, whose extreme spareness and intensity of vision makes it such a sorry proposition for making big bucks by conventional publishing, is by the same token an ideal art for the transit environment.
The extra value created is shared between poetry-lovers and advertisers. It's from the latter that London Underground might hope to profit - after all, there is no percentage in forgoing the rent for the poetry-slot, and then effectively giving away the increase in the value of the remaining commercial slots to the ad agencies for nothing! So those slots ought to be more expensive in the presence of the poetry slots than in their absence.
In practice it might not be possible to capture this value, because it's hard to quantify the extra eyeballs it provides, and therefore might not be believed in by the ad agencies - whose craft is notoriously alchemical at best. On the other hand, by the same token, it also ought to be possible to over-persuade the agencies of its value. It's not like they haven't gone for far goofier tactics in the past.
So: is art on the Underground used as a selling point in negotiations with ad agencies? Could it be so used successfully? Can it pay for itself entirely - and are there conditions under which a similar model could be used to afford living artists themselves an income?
Inquiring minds want to know.
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