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Jul. 26 2010 - 3:22 pm | 1,088 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Altered States: Times Square Billboard Crowdsources Content, Disrupts Reality

In the halcyon days of advertising, digital billboards would have been viewed as grotesque and intrusive, an affront to the delicate sensibilities of American consumers — an audience that once held great sway in the minds of corporate leadership. Madison Avenue’s elite creative minds were, for a fleeting moment, above such shenanigans. Today, however, eyeballs — and more so attention spans — are at a greater premium than ever before. And like the claustrophobic city scenes from Neo Tokyo or the dystopian Los Angeles portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, attracting the eyes of a targeted demographic now requires the ability to powerfully disrupt the public space.

One example of such wholesale public disruption can be seen in Times Square, where youth clothing brand Forever 21 (which now inhabits the old Virgin Megastore) has transformed its billboard into a crowdsourced sideshow. With technical/creative direction from Space 150, the billboard employs the use of high-tech surveillance cameras, computer vision technology, and a playful female model that interacts with the massive crowds, essentially creating a steroid-infused social media platform in the tourist core of Manhattan:

the new digital billboard features virtual models interacting with the crowd in a number of ways: a polaroid is taken of the street and instantly shown by the model to the crowd, an individual is picked up and turned into a frog by a kiss, while some are snuck under a hat or dropped into a shopping bag to get toted off the screen. for this to work, space150 required the use of high-tech surveillance equipment and computer vision technology. the software identifies and maps the people below which allows the computer to build a composite image of them in near real-time. this data is then used for the simulation with the virtual model as shown on the 61-foot screen. the computer also has the ability to pick out the yellow forever 21 shopping bags in a crowd. those who are standing below with the shopping bag are more likely to get picked up by the model. other features of the project include ‘love tweets’, a live on-screen feed of twitter messages from fans that include the words ‘forever 21′ and ‘love’. below the billboard, the entrance of the store uses thermal imaging cameras to trigger paparazzi-like flashes when a customer walks through the door. (via Designboom)

This concept feeds into our collective desire to be loved, the idea that we each deserve to be the main character in our own reality show — or worse yet, that our life is in fact a reality show. When Andy Warhol declared in 1968 that — “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” — even he couldn’t have known how prophetic the statement would become — and that it would apply in so many ways. By now Warhol’s words have become contrite, the phrase most often invoked to explain international obsession with reality television and the ever-present cult of celebrity. But it seems Warhol’s Nostradamus-like prediction is most often evidenced in the nebulous realm of advertising — an industry hell bent on, quite literally, augmenting the very reality of our everyday lives.

In his assessment of the billboard, Dangerous Minds’ Marc Campbell references a fitting quote from Marshall McLuhan: “Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.” If McLuhan were still around to witness how invasive the reach of advertising has become, I wonder if he might say we are beyond salvation.


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    About Me

    I am a writer, editor, and blogger who lives and works in the once-decaying heart of America's Rust Belt (i.e. Pittsburgh, PA). My work focuses on subculture, crime, mental health, race, class, and creativity.

    My writing appears in Spin, Good, XLR8R, Next American City, RaceWire, and Swindle, among other print and online publications. I have reported on the decline of sampling in hip-hop; interviewed artists and musicians who survived Cambodia’s killing fields; investigated the struggles of U.S. military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and shadowed graffiti writers, coaxing candid confessions about their obsession with illegal art.

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