Some Tokyo residents have been grumbling or sneering (or both) in the past few weeks about the latest head-turning novelty on the capital’s streets: those giant moving billboards that used to be just plain old green-and-cream buses.
They certainly do catch the eye. There goes an enormous bottle of Lipton’s Ice Tea. Oops, watch out for that looming Compaq Presario. And wasn’t that Ms. Whitney Houston who just rumbled by, her face as huge and scary as a Brobdingnag housewife’s?
Die-hards object that the newly decked-out buses — the result of a decision by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to relax an ordinance limiting bus advertisements to a Lilliputian 2.7 sq. meters — are undignified. They say the buses add to the already overwhelming visual clutter of the city’s central business and shopping areas. Worse, that they represent yet another beachhead gained by advertising in its relentless, creeping assault on the galaxy.
Why, critics ask, can’t a bus just be a bus?
The answer to that question and, by extension, to the entire catalog of objections is, naturally, money. Once the cash-strapped administration of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara figured out that selling wraparound advertising space on its 1,800 money-losing buses could generate as much an extra 300 million yen a year, the writing was on the wall. Well, on the bus. The idea has certainly been successful. City transport officials expected to sell the new 30-sq.-meter ad space on 100 or so buses. So far, more than 50 companies have applied for space, some of them wanting whole mini-fleets, with the result that 266 big-ad buses are already on the road and approvals for 123 more are pending. That is why you are suddenly seeing Mr. Tiger Woods — mobile and larger than life — touting Wonda coffee and an outsize Ms. Mariah Carey gunning past in the service of rival brew Santa Marta. Advertisers apparently know a brilliant marketing opportunity when they see it.
Our view is that if even a fraction of the revenue thus generated could be applied to a program to convert the city’s buses to a nondiesel-fuel system — one by one, if necessary — the assault on Tokyoites’ aesthetic sense will have been worth it. Better a few eyesores than a fleet of carcinogens on wheels. It is unlikely, of course, that anything so constructive is on the drawing board, despite Mr. Ishihara’s often-stated interest in cleaning up the city’s diesel-fouled air. The new funds may well be swallowed up in the effort to keep the city abreast of just its present financial commitments. But it is hard to argue with that as a priority, either.
There is some substance to the objection that advertising, as a global phenomenon, has overstepped all reasonable bounds in recent years. Fixed billboards continue to sprout, and television commercials are as ubiquitous as ever, as the Sydney Olympics will dismally bring home to us in September. But whole swaths of new territory have opened up as well, from sports (the MicronPC.com Bowl in U.S. college football, the Virginia Slims championships in women’s tennis) to space (multinational corporations are reportedly jostling to get their logos aboard a European Space Agency probe set to land on Mars in 2003). In the United States, ads have been popping up all over, on apples and gas-pump handles and ATM receipts, in restrooms and at highway tollbooths. The entire developed world, in short, has become a visual cacophony of commerce. In this context, agitating against the commercialization of Tokyo’s buses looks like nothing short of a blow for liberty.
Yet there is a case to be made that the new ads-on-wheels, far from offending the eye, actually bring a certain “joie de vivre” to the dreary urban scene. Notice how they make people smile and point. They are a hot topic of conversation at bus stops. And they are insidiously effective, testimony to their designers’ creativity. One no longer takes the 9:12 a.m. bus to work; one takes the 9:12 a.m. gigantic cup of Nescafe instant coffee. Just the thing to get the befuddled brain ticking over in the morning. Conversely, few sights could be more welcome to the tired, hot, homebound commuter or shopper than the Haagen Dazs Petite Selection bus. It’s like riding home in a mobile ice-cream parlor. And if you’re hungry, Nestle’s Kit Kat bus makes the thought of chocolate irresistible.
The moral of the story? Ads are annoying, except when they are good ads. And Tokyo’s traveling billboards are good ads. We can’t see any reason not to welcome hundreds more of them.
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