Creative Roundtable: Silencing Times Square

Three ad pros (virtually) erase billboards from the NYC landmark

creativeroundtable411Can you imagine Times Square stripped clean of advertising? Actually, you don't have to imagine it. You can make it happen - well, sort of - by visiting NØ AD: New York at and digitally removing the ads from a panoramic photo of Times Square. Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who parodies product placement in his latest documentary, pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, created the site in conjunction with The Barbarian Group and Aviary, a provider of online media creation tools.

According to Benjamin Palmer, cofounder and CEO of The Barbarian Group, the idea for NØ AD: New York came out of a discussion he had with Spurlock regarding São Paolo's ban on outdoor advertising. As the two were talking, they wondered what other cities, including New York, would look like sans advertising and decided to create NØ AD: New York, which Palmer bills as an online experiment.

Palmer, who makes his living creating advertising, stresses, "I'm not anti-advertising. I don't think Morgan is either, and his film isn't. It's just about looking at it in a different context."

Although it is against the nature of anyone who works in advertising to envision a world without giant billboards and flashy neon signs, OMMA found three New York City-based digital creatives - G2 chief creative officer Bruce Henderson, JWT chief creative innovation officer James Cooper and Atmosphere Proximity executive creative director Stewart Krull - who were willing to visit NØ AD: New York, perform the sacrilegious act of removing a few ads (again, guys, sorry we even had to ask you to do this!) and then share their thoughts on the experience.

Times Square scrubbed clean of advertising ...
Henderson: It's an interesting idea. There is probably an overabundance of advertising in the world, but there is a pretty strong argument that Times Square is a place people come to see ads.
Krull: To me, the ads in Times Square are one of the things that make the city cool. It's not like the architecture in the area is any great shakes.
Cooper: Times Square is Times Square because of the ads. One of the reasons people go to Shibuya in Tokyo is to see all those crazy lights. It's the same in Piccadilly Circus in London. It's very hard to take one away from the other.

Regardless of whether you love or hate the ads in Times Square, how did this site work for you?
Cooper: I really like simple ideas. There is a tendency in the digital space to overcomplicate things and put in extra layers of interactivity and animation, so I like it from that point of view. It's a simple idea that I get straight away, and I really like the use of Aviary, although it's a little clunky as it goes from the nø AD site to the Aviary site.
Henderson: The thing that struck me as I spent time playing with it is the law of unintended consequences: You're actually spending a lot of time with the advertising, so it may work in unintended ways in that as I spend time replacing an ad, I'm actually being exposed to the ad much more than I would have been otherwise.

Do you have a nagging voice in your head now telling you that you just have to buy tickets to Mamma Mia? (For those of you who haven't been to Times Square lately, the Broadway show has a billboard on display.)
Henderson: I've wanted to see Mamma Mia for a long time, so maybe I will now. Who knows? [He laughs.]
Krull: It's funny that for a site that is pretty much anti-advertising, the whole thing is a great ad for Aviary and their online image-editing tool. One of the first things you see when you start the process is the giant Aviary logo. For an experience that wants to downplay commercialism, this is one of the more commercial sites I've been to in the last few months.

I have to admit that I couldn't remove an ad without help from a tech-savvy friend. Could the Aviary tools be too hard for the average person to use?
Henderson: You have to have some experience with Photoshop or a similar application to be able to use it, so I'm not sure it's designed necessarily for the layman, but there's a quick tutorial on the home page.
Krull: I don't mind a little bit of a challenge for a user. If a person has a passion for this experience, and the goal Morgan Spurlock wants to achieve, they'll take the time to figure it out, but Aviary is just as overly complex and as deep and as confusing as Photoshop is. The how-to on the landing page would have been a lot more rewarding if it had been a video experience showing a time-lapse piece on how to edit the ads out, and you could have seen the transformation before your eyes. You never get that cathartic moment in this site experience as it is currently imagined.
Cooper: You've got to have some interest in image manipulation because it's not straightforward at all. But I would imagine it's not a mass piece of communication - this site is for people that are part of the Adbusters generation that want to rid the world of ads.

Should this site have been designed so that everyone could easily take part in the experience?
Henderson: There might have been a way to make it much easier for laymen to use. They could have created a system where you could just click something and the ads disappear. But it seems like it's mostly targeted at the ad industry.
Cooper: I think they are going after a niche group, and there is something powerful in letting someone clean a whole frame. It's work. It's something that takes you an amount of time, and there's a sort of ownership and a camaraderie that you're part of if you do that. It's almost like it would be too easy to just click a button, and presto! All the frames disappear! I think they want people to be part of the process.

How would you rate this site overall?
Krull: I'm not a fan of the concept, and I don't understand the drive behind it; I found it a little hypocritical based on the fact that it's an ad for Aviary. Then there's the user experience - you never get that cathartic payoff, and it's a lot more work than it's worth.
Cooper: It's fun, and it's simple, and it's straightforward. I just have a sort of fundamental logic block on why Morgan Spurlock is doing a film about advertising and getting brands to sponsor the film, then doing a site about taking brands out of Times Square, because without brands, you haven't got the film.
Henderson: Just in terms of earned media, it's been a big success. I had forgotten the URL, and I did a search, and there's been plenty of talk about it. If the intention was to launch something and get people talking, it was a resounding success.

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