The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch has a post about the insidious, inexorable spread of advertising into public spaces. He mentions the recent decision by a town in Indiana to sell naming rights to its fire hydrants in order to raise cash. The hydrants now carry garish ads for KFC Fiery Grilled Wings. Crouch notes that we seem to be fulfilling a dark dream of many science fiction writers, who conjured up a future in which “advertising becomes more pervasive, consumer culture supplants traditional culture, and language itself, from place names to common nouns, is subsumed by the things we buy and sell.”
We’ve been heading in this direction for a while. Crouch’s article reminded me of an essay about the arrival of electric light at the turn of the last century by Carolyn Marvin, which was collected in the excellent 1986 compilation Imagining Tomorrow. As light bulbs proliferated, an illumination mania ensued. A startup called the Electric Girl Lighting Company went into business renting out “illuminated girls” for parties: “Young women hired to perform the duties of hostesses and serving girls while decked out in filament lamps were advertised to prospective customers as ‘girls of fifty-candle power each in quantities to suit householders.'”
Companies became enthralled by the extravagant advertising opportunities opened by electric light. “A common device,” writes Marvin, “was the ‘sky sign,’ which spelled out the name of a firm or promotional slogan or outlined an image against the blank wall of a building.” Projectors, or “magic lanterns,” were also used to project messages onto buildings or windows. But that was just the beginning. Advertisers soon realized they could create literal “sky signs” — promotional messages projected on the firmament. This became popularly known, around 1890, as “advertising on the clouds.” Using technology developed by a General Electric engineer, a huge projector was erected on top of the tallest building in New York City in 1892. “It had an illumination of some 1,500,000 candles, and it weighed well over 3,000 pounds. An 8-inch lens projected stencil-plate slides of figures, words, and advertisements upon the clouds.”
Some were appalled by the prospect of seeing the night sky covered with ads. A writer in a British journal observed, “A poet, in one of his rhapsodies, said that he would like to snatch a burning pine from its Norway mountains and write with it the name of ‘Agnes’ in letters of fire on the skies. But he would probably have not cared to adorn the firmament with a blazing description of somebody’s patent trouser-stretcher, or a glowing picture, as large as Bedford Square, of a lady viewing the latest thing in corsets.”
Another writer lamented that the “the clouds are to be turned into hideous and gigantic hoardings.” The “awful invention,” he went on, “deprives us of the last open space in the world on which the weary eye might rest in peace without being agonized by the glaring monstrosities wherewith the modern trademan seeks to commend his wares.” As it turned out, advertisers would go on to discover all sorts of virgin “open spaces” in the world that could be covered with ads. Thanks to the ever-multiplying terrestrial, and now virtual, placement opportunities, the heavens, for the time being, have been spared.