Early in my advertising career, I dreamed of having my work appear in Times Square.
It’s happened twice but admittedly, the satisfaction wasn’t nearly as exhilarating as I thought it would be. Time Square? That’s a dream for many ad creatives. A certified home run. Hell, I thought I would have been celebrated with champagne and Frank Sinatra while creative interns twirled batons and sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…” in the agency boardroom.
The reality? I looked up, saw my stuff, smiled, and went back to concentrating on cab avoidance. It wasn’t necessarily “Meh”, but it wasn’t the pinnacle of jubilation I thought it would be either.
Times Square has always been the Super Bowl of out of home. It’s the most expensive promotional real estate in America with more lights, more signs, more bells, more flashes, and more distractions than any other stretch of road in the US. The Time Square Alliance states that signage in the area generates 1.5 million impressions from 300,000 pedestrians and 115,000 drivers / passengers every single day. It's an obvious tourist destination but may surprise you that 66,000 people call the area home. Regardless, that’s a TON of eyeballs all looking for something to look at.
With audience numbers like those, it’s no surprise that space is in demand. There’s also more supply than you might realize. You can erect a billboard, wrap street poles, cover garbage bins, play video on digital screens, or run any type of brand activation street event you can think of. Almost every inch of the space is for sale and with that amount of traffic at street level, Times Square is certainly the place to be seen.
Like TV spots on the Super Bowl, the size of the audience is a massive opportunity but it also comes with a huge problem:
Buying the space is the easiest part of the equation. Getting noticed is an entirely different matter.
Regardless of how good individual ad executions are, the result is a sea of competing visual stimuli each trying to outshine the other. Every inch of your peripheral vision is filled with something that pulls the eyes away. But just when you focus on one thing, something else fights for your attention. Blinking. Moving. Waving. Animating. Shining. Flashing. Ringing.
If that wasn’t difficult enough, brands aren’t just competing with other brands, they’re competing with all the other distractions in the area. Singers, dancers, honking horns, evangelical preachers, those statue people who spray themselves silver, the smell of roasting nuts, people elbowing to get their way to the front, “The End is Near” signs, scam artists, neighborhood music, and street level entrepreneurs who sell everything from T-shirts and theater tickets to recreational drugs and prostitution. And just when it couldn’t get any more ridiculous, Ryan Seacrest drops a glittering silver ball from the sky while Mariah Carey signs in the background. Sure it’s Times Square but where the hell are you supposed to look? What do you buy? What was that? Who do you trust? Is that smell what I think it is? It’s all so exhilarating!!!
It’s also bloody exhausting.
Sound familiar? Times Square isn’t isolated between West 42nd and West 47th. It’s everywhere.
Times Square is in Kentucky. Times Square is in Winnipeg. Times Square is at your desk. Times Square is in the middle of your living room. Times Square is in your pocket.
Times Square is right in front of you. It’s poking you. It’s bugging you. It’s distracting you. It’s an email notification. It’s a ring signalling that you’ve just been tagged in an Instagram post. It’s an app that precisely tells you the chance of rain. It’s the score of the ball game. It’s an entire music library that you don’t even own. It’s a video from that big thing that happened last night to watch. It’s countless beautiful photos of your child that you can access anytime. You may not have the smell of horseradish or the sounds of biblical proclamations but you’ve got stuff at your fingertips that’s significantly better.
Times Square may physically be in Manhattan but the challenge and opportunity of Times Square is in front of all of us. As social media moves even further away from organic and becomes the pure mass media play that we predicted all along, we can’t forget one critical fact: Buying the space is the easiest part of the equation.
You may have paid for the eyeballs but it doesn’t mean they’ll look. The most difficult thing to buy has always been time and attention. Invest wisely.
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