Living in a city deprived of a proper subway system, we sadly miss out on many transit-specific aspects of urban visual culture, from roving mariachi bands to subterranean Art Deco mosaics to Harry Beck-influenced transit maps.
The advertising is another such aspect. Since this column is devoted to the study of visual culture in all of its many forms, it would be disingenuous – perhaps even an unforgivable dereliction of my strolling duties – not to look carefully once in a while at this most ubiquitous form of visual culture. In terms of volume and visibility, advertising in a rail-based mass transit system is present in a way it isn’t on the sort of bus shelters and LRT station enclosures one finds in the Twin Cities. That volume and visibility creates a different sort of landscape, one that you respond to much differently.
You can mentally postmark your trips to New York, for example, based on your memories of what movie advertisements you saw on the walls of each subway station, flickering in succession like a zoetrope through the windows of the subway car as it pulls in. I very specifically remember a certain trip to New York that I know must have been in May 2007; I know this because, according to Wikipedia, that’s right before Judd Apatow’s film “Knocked Up” was released theatrically, and the posters of Seth Rogen’s enormous face that heralded the film’s opening day were plastered all over the subway system. It is impossible to think back on that particular trip without thinking of Seth Rogen’s face.
Advertising campaigns are certainly part of the visual culture of mass transit in the Twin Cities, but they’re less ubiquitous, less overwhelming in scale. It would be hard to make those same mental postmarks based on the ads that adorn mass transit at any given time. What specific advertisements in LRT stations, on the sides of buses, or in bus shelters can you remember? Probably none, unless they were particularly brilliant or particularly awful. Do you remember what movies, books, or law firms were being heavily advertised last winter? Even this summer?
There is at least one exception, if just for me. Since 2010, there have been some astoundingly good-looking advertisements from the Montana Office of Tourism splashed across on billboards, bus shelter and trains. You’ve probably seen them, as they look much different than most of what else is out there. They tend to be very minimal: a photograph of Montana’s natural terrain, with MONTANA made out in a white, all-caps Helvetica Light typeface, and then listing the Office of Tourism’s website. They’ve run on and off since then, and are currently highlighting Montana’s winter attractions specifically, such as skiing and national parks (of course, national parks are attractions all year round). A particularly memorable earlier iteration featured a shot of the blue, yellow and red bacterial hot spring at Yellowstone National Park, looking almost psychedelic in its coloration. Since I spend a lot of time in and around mass transit, I had been wondering about these ads since then, so I looked into their background a little more closely.
Most mass transit advertising is garbled visual junk featuring babies, sleazy attorneys, and overweight radio personalities, so these elegant, spare ads stood out from the morass. They seemed to add a genuine regional flavor to the urban landscape – a reminder that Minneapolis sits right on the very edge of the Great Plains, the so-called first city of the west.
The ads were commissioned by the Montana Office of Tourism to a Bozeman-based firm called MercuryCSC that also has offices in Miami and San Francisco. It’s heartening to know, in some way, that the task of selling Montana to potential tourism customers in the region is being handled by a Montana-based group with a good understanding of what makes their state attractive; in fact, most of the bios of Mercury’s team on the firm’s website mention skiing and other outdoor activities, so you know their hearts are in it. As attractive as the minimal art direction is, the ads really work because of the strength of the images, all of which were provided by Montana-based photographers. For the current series, the work of David Shumway, Craig Moore and Ken Takata are featured. All three of these men are working nature photographers, focused mainly on making work about Montana and its natural features. Paired with minimal text in the advertisements, the imagery is front and center. Seeing the ads, one wouldn’t necessarily know they’d been created by Montana artists, but you wouldn’t necessarily need to know – it’s self-evident in the photographers’ innate feel for the imagery.
In fact, the ads are so good the tourism bureau in Colorado, one state over, rolled out a series of ads this year that looked to me like complete knockoffs. They were images depicting sun-kissed high plains vistas overlaid with the word COLORADO, written in the same unfussy white Helvetica Light typeface. For a while this summer, there was one on that towering billboard near Snelling and University that’s visible from 94. A few lucky times, I got to see a Montana-branded #21 bus ambling over Snelling underneath the Colorado billboard, and glimpsed a vision of the future of the interior west’s battle for your tourist dollars. Still, I’ll take this approach over the offerings from the tourism offices of neighboring Wyoming and North Dakota, which occasionally turn up on local billboards and seem to favor cowboy imagery, wood grain backgrounds, and swoopy cursive typefaces that have a non-retro 1980s feel. These types of ads rarely create within me any more enthusiasm for westward travel than a standard Wall Drug bumper sticker – though I like cowboys as much as anyone, they’re not a compelling reason to take a week off work. But the Montana formula really works. I’d never had an urge to get on an Amtrak and travel to Montana before, but those sweeping glacial vistas and that minimal editorial content really did it for me.
It feels somewhat odd to be writing so enthusiastically about what are, after all, just advertisements. But think of what a large percentage of what you encounter on your trips through the city is advertising, and think about how tasteless and ugly the vast majority of it is. The problem of advertising is as much aesthetic as anything. How do you tell the story of a place – especially a non-trendy, remote place like Montana – without falling back on clichés or historical kitsch? How do you connect with an urban audience, stuck on a bus or train of all things, in such a way that makes a simple case for your state, in a way that doesn’t get lost in the overwhelming riot of imagery that surrounds outdoor advertising? A good photograph and sensible typography is one way. It’s nice to see simplicity and elegance win out for once.