Print is not dead (yet), at least not in outdoor advertising platforms like the subway. Advertisements placed in the subway target the metropolitan commuter, the urban consumer. Outdoor advertising as such generate high traffic and circulation as it is (positioned in) the vehicle that connects consumers from point A to point B (figuratively and literally). These advertisements usually have geographically/demographically localized target markets and tend to occupy entire trains at a time – as GrubHub Seamless targets New Yorkers in New York subways with consistent campaigns in series of posters. Effective subway ads keep the message short due to passengers’ limited time onboard: about one minute per stop, more than a few stops if you are lucky. Grubhub Seamless, the food delivery company, realizes this and relies mainly on its copy – employing dark humor (snarky at times) in one-liners that address commuters in their perceived tone, perpetuating a stereotype of cold cynical New Yorkers too good for anyone but themselves. Grubhub Seamless ads target New Yorkers but not just any New Yorker; it goes for the millennial ones, the new middle class – often found scurrying underground as commuters. Walter Benjamin notes, “We decipher ads routinely, absentmindedly in a state of distraction;” this is even more so when we are stuck in the strange vortex that is the subway (Goldman&Papson, 81). Ads are inescapable; they have become so naturalized in to our lives that we become susceptible to the embedded ideologies without realizing our consumption of them. This is disconcerting, as Goldman and Papson would agree; ads perpetuate and are carriers of ideologies that do not benefit us.
While some criticize Seamless for not explicitly communicating its actual brand value in ad campaigns, I find it important to focus on what the company is doing instead. Seamless is not making the conversation about them because it is not about them; it is about you, the consumer, and everything about your life – what makes you tick and what rocks your boat (but more so the former). Unlike in the traditional days when hard-sell was the way, Seamless sells an attitude, and one specifically meant to resonate with New Yorkers – who conveniently seem to share the identity of cynical spectators. So while there may be resistance from alienated spectators, hip consumerism (thanks to the Creative Revolution) recognizes the bored and cynical audience by using various signifiers to side with and gain loyalty from such consumers (Frank, “Cultural Criticism” 55).
In its subway ads, Seamless employs representational tactics such as culture-ridden intertextuality, referencing existent combinations of texts as signifiers “to place and displace old and new meanings while building upon what has gone before” (Leiss, 502). They promote main themes of New Yorker-exclusivity, including social codes – which is, rather, to not be social. One Seamless ad slogan is: “favourite thing about having a smartphone is never having to phone anyone.” Seamless hit two birds with one stone with this one because it not only promotes anti-socialness, a major theme in its ad campaigns, it also puts down the competition, which is calling restaurants to order delivery instead of using the Seamless platform.
The images above are examples of Seamless ads in the subway. The first ad compares calling restaurants to the feeling of walking behind tourists, which all New Yorkers (should) know about. It denotatively distinguishes the audience from tourists and demonstrates connotative exclusivity by marking the audience as insiders through showing an understanding of the pain/annoyance of “outsiders.”
Seamless uses this ad to paint a normative version of our relationships with others in this one facet of the world, which is one of the four ways, according to Goldman and Papson, that ads are ideological. This ad along with most of the others all have the uniform Seamless logo, the image of takeout boxes filled with food (of various kind, denoting diversity), and the call to action text somewhere in between (reflecting the logic of capital, another ideological factor noted by Goldman&Papson).
The second ad follows in the same vein as the first in capitalizing on the perceived attitude of the target market, which is the sense of superiority that people living in New York may come to adopt. It draws upon a (supposedly) shared cultural knowledge and promotes the social code of avoiding Times Square, a landmark aspired by “outsiders”/tourists, yet, dismissed by New Yorkers. The ad casts a negative light on while connecting both the experience of going to Times Square with that of calling restaurants (competition). It disguises (yet implicitly promotes) inequalities and contradictions of the cultural fabric of New York City and the world; it generalizes people’s taste and preferences, dictating what people should not like, thereby socially and culturally constructing the world to consumers.
The third ad with the textual signifier, “It’s easy. Like deleting friends after their 529th invite to Candy Crush” draws on a current trend. The copy does not have anything to do with the service Seamless is selling other than the “easy” aspect, but who knows what they are talking about? What is easy?? The ad recognizes that the target consumer is so on demand and is too cool to participate in the “social” activity of playing Candy Crush like the rest. It highlights individualism and desirability in the target market while promoting a normative view of our relationships with one another – that friends can be “deleted.” This is one of the examples of when the intertextuality in ads trails too far from its main subject and the ambiguous message overshadows its intended purpose. The effort that Seamless puts in to being hip, cool, and “with it” is reflective of its target niche but also drives an inaccurate representation – that is the cold, anti-social, reclusive collective of New Yorkers (see fourth and fifth ad).
The sixth ad and perhaps most bizarre use of intertextual references has the copy “It’s hotter outside than a twerking unicorn eating sriracha.” against a fuchsia background with Seamless’ website on top. It combines three keyword trends of pop culture: twerk, unicorn, and sriracha. It is very clear with this ad that Seamless is targeting youth, supporting my claim in the beginning that Seamless does not target all of New York with these geographically tailored campaigns but specifically those who understand this mix of intertextuality; an elderly man may not understand the cultural significance of twerking, unicorn, and sriracha and how they can be in the same sentence to make sense. What could this ad possibly be talking about? Goldman and Papson question what happens when viewers can no longer decode what the point of an ad is and how far advertisers can go in creating narrative confusion, such as these Seamless ads, without undermining the goals of advertising.
But for now, they work.
And with that, these seamless ads, though quite seamlessly positioned contextually in target market’s lives, should be exposed exactly because they are effective. We may not stop to think twice because we identify with what it communicates, thus overlooking the discourse we submit ourselves to and consume. As Goldman and Papson write,
We rarely pause to consider the assumptions imposed by the advertising framework since our attention is usually fixed on solving the particular riddle of each ad as it passes before us on the screen; just as importantly, our attention is usually fixed on the question of whether or not we like the ad (Goldman & Papson, 81).
It is important to think critically and question the consumption ideology, which is why a culture jam (“the appropriation of a brand identity or advertising for subversive, often political, intent”) to imitate and satirize Seamless is necessary (Carducci, 117).
For my quick spoof video of the Seamless subway ads in New York, I would visually realize the copy on the ads for one to see that it has nothing to do with the service Seamless offers. There would be a montage of shots, including a twerking unicorn eating Sriracha, a person getting frustrated walking behind tourists, and a person who is traumatized after going to Times Square who then runs home only to receive the 529th invitation to play Candy Crush and explodes – to a final caption: “It’s Easy” with Seamless’ logo to expose just how ridiculous and senseless the ads are.
As originally a New York based service targeting New Yorkers, Seamless finds staying power in the fleeting trains, which is a defining part of the city. However, the traits that Seamless depicts of its target consumer in these subway ads resemble those of a depressed person. Seamless tries to incorporate itself in to the target consumer’s taste palette by targeting attitude and lifestyle. The ads seem to psychologically befriend you, developing character through its copy as voice; they seem to speak a certain truth you identify with about whom you believe you are, or is it whom Seamless believes you are? This is colonization of mental space, as Naomi Klein (author of Alt.Everything: The Youth Market and the Marketing of Cool) would say, and we should protect ourselves… because it’s not easy.
-Jennifer Zhengfei Wang