Directing the Consumer’s Attention through Public Screens: A Critical View

[Ed. note: this post is part of a Student Voices section on Hong Kong, Shanghai, cities, screens, and spectacle. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Public screens in Hong Kong and Shanghai are ubiquitous as a means of capital competition. As my photos reveal, screens have become an integral part of both the physical and organizational infrastructures within these cities. Advertisers compete for the consumer’s attention by focusing on the location and repetition of the public screen to transform a space into an environment with ambience. Attention to such screens and the ambience that they produce, as Anna McCarthy suggests, “can teach us a great deal about the power politics of spectatorship and commerce in contemporary public space.”1Anna McCarthy, “Introduction: The Public Lives of TV,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 1. In the public’s encounter with the by now quotidian advertising screens of the commercial centers and pathways of cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, there is sometimes an indistinguishable line between enchantment and overexposure. This thin line between intentionally directed attention and unintentionally directed attention utilizes aspirational culture to captivate consumers by exploiting their journey through self-improvement. Regardless the direction in which the consumer’s attention is focused, the ambience of the screen seizes passerby attention, normalizing what they – and society as a whole – should aspire to become.

Photo A: A staircase screen in a storefront at a shopping center in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. The screen played runway shows on a loop, contributing to the aspirational culture that is at the core of consumerism. Photo taken by author.

In photo A, the staircase that is doubling as a screen presents the high-end store as desirable as a high-tech, modern brand. The advertisers are playing to the location of the screen as a means of creating an ambience that works to affect the consumers passing by. Because the screen is in a shopping district, the distinct architecture of the screen is useful in directing the consumer’s attention into the store and away from other competing screens. In his discussion of public screens in Shanghai, Chris Berry states: “Overall, almost all deployments of these screens are connected in some way with aspirational culture, be it the aspiration for urban regeneration, the promotion of consumerism, or the quest for knowledge and self-improvement.”2Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 61. This staircase screen is a prime example of a screen promoting aspirational culture. Because the screen is visible from the front door, the ambience of the store seeps into the streets of the city. It works to persuade passersby into the store, invite them to aspire to their level of high-fashion, and enchant them into believing that they too can achieve the image of the models walking down the runway. This ambience plays to the emotions of the consumer, attempting to lure them in by exploiting their quest for self-improvement. When the consumer heads to the second level of the store, the once screen is now a staircase to be walked upon – a message the consumer is attempting to conquer as they fall deeper into the pit of consumerism.

Photo B reveals the Mega Projection Zone structure that JCDecaux built in the Xujiahui metro station. The out of home advertising company creates an environment that also presents itself as high-tech and modern, thus presenting the companies they are advertising as such. The infrastructure, which consists of a combination of lights and projectors hanging from the ceiling, creates a subdued and relaxed ambience throughout the corridor of the subway station, directing the attention to the lit screens. Of course, this infrastructure may also unintentionally direct the consumer’s attention toward the source of their enchantment – the screen infrastructure that showcases the advertisements, not the advertisements themselves. Yet when considering how this infrastructure is balanced with the repetition of the advertisements that are being projected, these advertisements also work to ingrain the message into the mind of the consumer. The constant, overexposure of these messages may lead to passersby feeling overwhelmed. Chris Berry further explicates how the purpose of the screens in the Shanghai South Railway Station is to “direct flows of people,” while in the Wujiaochang retail hub, an additional purpose of screen advertising is to “act as part of a “lightscape” of enchantment that helps to attract visitors.”3Ibid, 59. In the Xujiahui metro corridor – shown in photo B – the advertisements that are projected by the light structure seem to direct the flow of traffic. For example, as they are set at the eye level of passersby, people walk by the screens as they read, all while continuing to both look and walk forward. Still, although the light structure in Xujiahui Station could certainly help direct the flow of traffic as it doesn’t break from the “line” or “flow” that directs passersby, the Mega Projection Zone seems to be more of a lightscape – capturing the attention of passersby, with the aim of putting them in an awestruck state.

Photo B: JCDecaux’s Mega Projection Zone light structure in the Xujiahui metro station, Shanghai, China. The infrastructure combines lights and projectors to create a spectacle in the center of the company’s advertisements. Photo taken by author.

In the capital competition that prevails throughout the city, advertisers find it necessary to integrate the advertisements into the physical infrastructure of the city to more fully compete for the consumer’s attention. “Prosaic and banal though these sites may be, enchantment is a necessary component of the deployment of the screens in all cases, because it is what catches our eye and helps to make the screen stand out from the visual clutter of the contemporary city.”4Ibid, 62 This competition to stand out often requires companies to create a spectacle of an advertisement in the hopes that consumers are drawn to what is new and interesting. In many cases, this seems to be a sort of pitfall for companies because they may have to focus less on the products they are selling and companies they are advertising for to focus more on attaining the consumer’s attention. The consumer, perceived to be more concerned with their personal image, are to be drawn toward the companies that present themselves in a desirable, attention demanding manner. For example, the runway show on the staircase screen promotes an aspirational culture by providing the consumer with an ideal image to live up to.

This brings into question whether the consumer cares more about the content being advertised or the image the advertisement presents. Are consumers actually interested in the products that are being advertised or are they simply captivated by the advertisement itself? “When moving image advertisements and notices are brought into public spaces, however banal their content and taken for granted the technology is, this magic of le vif also insinuates itself.”5Ibid. 62 In his explanation, Berry describes le vif as something that inspires amazement. If consumers experience le vif at the sight of moving images, it’s easy to understand how designers and advertisers trying to inspire amazement through innovative work can cross the line between enchantment and overexposure when attempting to direct the consumer’s attention. This overexposure may cause consumers to block out the majority of advertisements as they become more integrated into the everyday life of society, and thus, normalized. This turns aspirational culture into something more than what consumers should aspire to be; it now tells them how they must be to fit in with these societal norms. It’s presented as something that’s no longer unattainable, but one simple purchase away.

“As Guy Debord reminds us, the spectacle of the image is a critical lens through which to consider the politics of society, the social relations of the people that the image mediates.”6Audrey Yue and Xin Gu, “Large Screens in Shanghai.”Situations 7, no. 2 (2014): 35. In consideration of this metaphor, it is necessary to ask what the relationship between the advertiser or designer of the screen, the space of the screen, and the consumer is. Each of these is a key player in the politics of the market that drives both capital competition and media competition within cities like Shanghai and Honk Kong. They are all a key component in the cycle of these competitions: the advertiser or designer creates a screen or product that enchants the consumer or spectator, which causes their aspirations to fall into line with the aspirations the company, causing the demand for these products or spectacles of advertisements to increase. Once the spectacle is commonly integrated throughout society, it becomes normalized – the market becomes oversaturated, causing a sense of overexposure to what is now the everyday public screen culture. The consumer’s attention is no longer directed toward what was once the spectacle. The advertisers and designers must create a new spectacle that, by means of enchantment, stands apart from this everyday public screen culture. As the advertisers are competing for the attention of the consumer, consumers – “the people that the image mediates” – remain in the position of looking for the next spectacle, so they too can stay up to date with the aspirational culture that is at the core of consumerism.

“When more and more cities become urbanized, the need to address everyday cultural and social life becomes even more crucial for sustainable urban transformation.”7Ibid, 49 Xin Gu and Audrey Yue argue that in order to have sustainable urban transformation, the identity of cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong cannot be directly associated with their economic development. If media cities continue to directly associate their cultural and social identity with their economic development, what culture or experience of the city will remain? The transformation of cities into media cities seems to directly correlate with the transformation of cities into a capitalist market. When consumers in a large city become fixated on an ideal image that is being distributed around the world, how does each city sustain its everyday cultures and experiences?


1 Anna McCarthy, “Introduction: The Public Lives of TV,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 1.
2 Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 61.
3 Ibid, 59.
4 Ibid, 62
5 Ibid. 62
6 Audrey Yue and Xin Gu, “Large Screens in Shanghai.”Situations 7, no. 2 (2014): 35.
7 Ibid, 49
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