A step up in advertising, New York

United States

In their final posting, our New York correspondents Jon Hammer and Karen McBurnie celebrate an overlooked aspect of the adman’s art.

Sometimes the most humble doorway offers an opportunity for time travel. Walking crosstown between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York City’’s Diamond District we did a double-take when we spotted these classic examples of an advertising form from the past. Reading up the stairs is a tenant directory in grab-ya primary colours, stark sans-serif type font and no-nonsense brevity. Of course we live in an age where every square inch of available space can and will be used for hawking some sort of commercial enterprise. The surprise is that this type of signage, once ubiquitous midtown, has all but died out except in these blocks of 46th and 47th Streets. Many filled with college students slipped in using fake id.

While the workaday well-trodden stairs are picturesque, it’’s encouraging to find fresh examples of step ads making a comeback around town. (Nyaaah, we do like some new stuff.) Most prominent is at Lincoln Center. At Josie Robertson Plaza, the point-of-entry fronting Columbus Avenue, the zippy LED-light steps are programmed to welcome visitors in several languages, and elegantly trumpet the events of the day.

Next we noticed that Bloomingdale’’s, a 1930s art deco department store hidden under ‘70s glitz and fashion hubbub, has tech-ed up the joint. A stairway to the mezzanine contains illuminated messages urging you to take advantage of telephone charging facilities — a useful service and a shrewd way to keep potential customers on premises.

Step ads call to mind the classic Burma Shave billboard advertising of the early 20th century when the brushless shaving cream company entertained automobile travelers with serial billboards featuring roadside poetry like this:

He Played
A Sax
Had no B.O.
But his whiskers scratched
So she let him go.

Nothing so clever today, but still we are cheered to see a current example in the subway caves, a reminder of scuzzy, scary old NYC.

Above: Bloomingdales; below: Lincoln Center

Read more of Jon and Karen's tales of New York at their Grade "A" Fancy site.

Published 7 January 2013

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