© Heba Malaeb

Advertising Space, Democratic Space?

As we’ve adapted to an online arena of existence, the necessary evil that is advertising has had to adapt with us; the targeted advertising that happens on the Internet is based on algorithms that study an individual’s shopping and browsing behaviors, and accordingly advertises products that fit within those behaviors. In contrast to this, the subway car, a physical space where advertising happens based on larger trends and not on individualized patterns of consumption, remains one of the few equalizers in today’s advertising world. Thus, while our digital advertising algorithms can reveal specific and personalized things about us, subway ads, targeting the wider public, can simultaneously reflect and shape the state of our society at large.

It is because of this reflection of larger phenomena that subway ads can be looked to for clues about our current cultural or social moment. These clues can be clues of content (e.g., the proliferation of food-delivery-service ads says people may be cooking less), as well as clues of form (the sans-serif, “clean”, minimal aesthetic that has come to be associated with our era). The MTA’s advertising policy permits “commercial ads, governmental notices or messages, or certain public service announcements”. Of these three categories, commercial ads tend to be the most visually appealing, in order to sell the products or services they present to the world.

But “visually appealing” does not necessarily mean beautiful. The idea of “good design” has wiped out the primacy of beauty from our public values; the positioning of design as a realm of problem-solving has relegated beauty to a lower rung of the ladder. In the design world, beauty is most often treated as merely an incidental consequence of good design. With the idea of beauty being filed away to the quiet domain of secondary pursuits, the much more intellectual category of “aesthetic”, in the sense of “visual identity”, emerges.

To parse the dominant commercial ad aesthetic of the day, one can look at advertisements for new companies: companies that embody the commercial spirit of the present, and intend to carry forward into the future. Today’s new-company subway-ad aesthetic involves sleek, often sans-serif type, set against plain or gradient pastel color backgrounds, with minimal imagery. It doesn’t take much effort to note the lack of diversity among the visual language of these ads: for example, the health insurance company “oscar” could be confused for the mattress company “Casper”, not just for their similar names, but for the almost identical aesthetic of their branding. Within this aesthetic group are THINX (a company that sells “period-proof underwear”), glossier (a makeup company), AWAY (a suitcase company), and FoodKick (a grocery-delivery-service company), to name a few, who all, despite the wide range of their themes, employ a similar visual language.

But their visuals are not the only thing they have in common. These products and services fall within a price range that takes for granted a certain level of financial ability, one that most of us do not have. So what does this aesthetic, which can be fairly said to connote a certain level of socioeconomic standing, say about who gets to participate in “the future”?

David Flahey, in his 2006 article, “Class and Web Design, Part 1: The Class Struggle”, theorizes that “good design” is associated with snobbery and money, while “ugly design” appeals to a larger population. Flahey posits that class plays a big role in how design is perceived; “good design” can play an alienating role to people of lower socioeconomic status. Beyond the socioeconomic, what is viewed as “good design” can also have socio-cultural connotations: last year, Fast Company’s design magazine’s named Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat “the worst design of 2016”, but also “the most effective”, for its unintimidating, unpretentious, and hence definitely not liberal (nor progressive) non-designedness: “The “undesigned” hat represented [an] everyman sensibility, while Hillary’s high-design branding–which was disciplined, systematic, and well-executed–embodied the establishment narrative that Trump railed against”.

When advertisements look like there was a whole team (and big amounts of money) behind them, it lends them legitimacy, by implying deliberateness. In this way, the designer-okayed designer-issued aesthetic further defines what is “good” and “bad”. This implicitly affects the way we as a society judge visuals, and assign associations to them. The subway advertisements also reflect who is being privileged by the world of products and services; although it might seem counter-intuitive to think being targeted for advertisements is a privilege, being advertised to necessarily means you are being designed for.

It is difficult, in the age of Instagram and “personal brands”, to step away from our obsession with and reliance on visual ways of valuation. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in the hands of the designer. Through this dictative, selective institutional favoring of one kind of aesthetic over another, new measures of value are created. The work of designers, being deliberate and assumed to be for some kind of betterment or progress, reflects the values of the day. And so, as designers, we must shift focus, to champion values like accessibility, social good, and democracy, over sleekness and newness and “good”-ness. And although it’s implausible to expect social change to happen through advertising, we must look at the more democratic of our spaces (although one still needs to afford a swipe to enter the subway) as places of a different kind of opportunity - an opportunity to observe the patterns at play beneath the everyday. In one of the few remaining spaces where cross-class contact happens, who is being made to feel more welcome?

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