By Terry Trucco
At last count, Times Square had 230 illuminated advertising billboards blazing away day and night.
So why is the proposed sign for Swedish retailer H & M, set to crown the Conde Nast Building at 4 Times Square by the end of the year, causing such a fuss?
For starters, it’s super big. With four 70-foot panels, H & M will dwarf rooftop behemoths like the GE sign that crowns 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the Met Life moniker looming over Park Avenue near Grand Central Station.
It’s also expensive. The Durst Organization, which owns the building, has tried in vain to lease the airspace since the tower went up in 2000. H & M snapped it up in part to tout their new flagship store at Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, which at 57,000 square feet is also pretty big.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” community activist Marisa Redanty, who lives down the street from the building, told The Wall Street Journal upon seeing the plans. “It’s very un-classy — it’s tacky, and it’s like ‘Are we going to look like Tokyo?’”
But this is Times Square we’re talking about. Taxi Driver was set here in the 70s. Creepy people dressed up like Mickey Mouse and Cookie Monster hang out here today, hugging tourists.
As for the flashing uber-ads, Times Square already looks like Tokyo — deliberately. It’s been building toward this moment for more than a century.
Time Square’s first illuminated billboard clicked on in 1904 on the side of a bank on Broadway and 46th Street. “As theaters popped up, people started coming to the area,” says Steven Heller, co-author of “Times Square Style: Graphics from the Great White Way.” “Advertising technology improved with the beginning of illumination, and Times Square became a good place to advertise.”
The area was a promotional hub by the 1920s, “and that’s never really changed,” Heller says.
The neon billboards that resulted were known as “spectaculars,” a pitch-perfect term coined
by Douglas Leigh, creator of the legendary Camel cigarette sign that blew smoke rings. The best were minor works of commercial art, like the steaming cup of A. & P. coffee and the Super-Suds Detergent sign with 3,000 “floating” soap bubbles per minute, also Leigh creations.
These days LEDs power most signs, notably Panasonic’s “Crossroads of the World” screen, three stories high at the center of 1 Times Square, where the New Year’s Eve ball drops. With 1.5 million LEDs, it can beam more than one billion shades of color.
Under current zoning regulations, Times Square buildings are actually required to display illuminated advertisements. The result? Billboards light up 385,000 square feet in the area, generating $60 million annually in advertising revenue (small wonder: they’re seen by 300,000 to 500,000 people a day). For anyone besotted by Times Square’s canyon of lights, a spot on the TKTS discount ticket booth’s lipstick red bleacher offers the best seat in the house.
Given its prime real estate, the new billboard’s biggest crime is that it’s boring, more corporate than clever (too bad Leigh isn’t around to work his magic on it). Why can’t we get something that at least attempts to be entertaining? Maybe the solution is skywriter humor, as suggested by Vanity Fair ; those grand-scale initials could be tweaked by adding strategically placed letters to read Hi Mom and CasH 4 Gold, albeit elusively.
Or maybe we just have to wait for Midnight Moment each night at the stroke of 12 a.m., when every billboard in Times Square displays a synchronized work of art. It only lasts three minutes, but H & M could be a terrific addition to the landscape, at least for the blink of an eye.