Integrated Spectacle Perpetuation Within Metro China

[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.]

Advertisements are situated in multiple urban settings throughout American cities. They encourage consumers to purchase the company’s product by showcasing their merchandise in a favorable light. For example, Times Square in New York City is a notable landmark in which large screens with capitalistic messages reside. The architecture of the space invites visitors to walk through the digital cityscape, gazing up at the bright LEDs as a guiding light to lead the way down the streets. The advertisements call attention to themselves by their larger than life placement upon the walls of the skyscrapers. Consumers must physically draw their heads back as they gaze up at the show of lights and high-end products upon the screens. The specific characteristics of luminosity, positioning, and content all help to create the environment in places like Times Square. The people who inhabit this space are affected by and interact with the advertisements and the personality of the city space. This is true for other cities as well. Large commercial centers in Shanghai and Hong Kong, for example, are saturated with grandiose public screens which shine bright and high above their potential clients. These conditions also prevail in other urban pathways, but in a different and less captivating context. In cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, companies such as JC Decaux produce high-end media platforms for advertisers to display their content in urban settings. Yet JC Decaux produces screens and develops screen content specifically for the subway systems in these respective cities. Emplacing these advertisements to specifically suit urban metro settings reinforces the environment in which they are situated.

In his discussion of the Shanghai public transport system, Chris Berry discusses the idea of “exposure” in crowded settings. He explains that metro and transportation locations are wonderful spaces in the eyes of the advertisers, so that they may saturate the urban playing field.1Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 13-29 These are spaces in which the average citizen congregates daily, making it an ideal space for viewership. To be seen, these kinds of advertisements don’t have to be as spectacular as the kinds of advertisements in above ground Times Square-esque environments. Transportation advertisements are going to be seen no matter what due to the nature of their repeated placement. The kinds of advertisements one would see in Times Square in New York City or the Chinese urban equivalents such as Causeway Bay in Hong Kong or Nanjing Road in Shanghai differ from that of the transportation and metro advertisements in those cities. Needing to stand out, the advertisers in these large-scale commercial and cultural intersections present varied advertisements with bright lights to create a spectacle out of their products. New and exciting products will be noticed, whereas plainly lit and dull content will be overlooked. This is not necessarily the case in an underground urban metro setting. Although similarities prevail between transportation advertising and the advertising showcased in metropolitan retail centers, Berry’s idea of exposure better defines the screened circumstances of the city’s transport system, and can be seen through the differences in luminosity, placement, and content choices.

A spectacle is commonly defined as, “a visually striking performance or display.”, The kinds of advertisements that grab one’s attention, which are also typically the kinds of advertisements which are in large commercial retail centers, can be defined as spectacles in this sense. Their intention is to be over the top and unique. Transportation and metro spectacle making is different, however, when the idea of exposure is put into play. These advertisers know that these transportation centers will be used either way. In no way do they need to try to stand out when their ads will likely be overlooked anyway. Thus, instead of exemplifying the placement of these screened ads (placing them at a “larger than life” height), the metro advertisers choose to put them at eye-level, or slightly above it. The consumers will already be looking just ahead or slightly up. For advertisers, a screen placed at these levels will increase the likelihood that an everyday citizen traveling through the metro will see this company’s message. Unlike these grandiose epicenters of retail, focusing on brightly lit advertisements to call attention to what is being marketed, underground ads need not bombard the passersby with bright LEDs. Money can be saved by leveling the playing field from competitor to competitor and keeping the lighting to the minimum needed to be able to clearly see what is being marketed in the metro corridors. The content of advertisements in transportation and metro spaces also differs greatly from the above-ground spectacle advertising. Exposure, as Berry explains, is commonplace in the transportation advertising world. Knowing that their ads will not be closely viewed anyway, transportation-heavy advertisers generate the same kind of content (that is relatable to an everyday average citizen) repeatedly. Easily digestible ads which show content that would be attainable to an average citizen are common in these highly exposed areas. For example, the content on these underground advertisements are often that of something that can be easily purchased (available and affordable to a wide audience), like inexpensive clothing or fast food options. Exposure also encompasses the idea of ads being repeated time and time again. If common notions of spectacle making aren’t possible in the metro setting, then repeated subliminal messaging might work.

Photo of Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway taken by Indiana University junior Calvin Badger.

As seen in the photo above, the screen is being looked at by only the photographer – other passersby don’t even glance at it. This company advertised similar ads throughout the whole corridor. Thus, they are exposing the audience to multiple versions of the same idea repeatedly. Their hope is that this quantity of advertising will rub off on their target audience. This screen (and the series of screens around it) are a part of the idea of exposure. The habitual exposure prevents companies such as JC Decaux from creating a spectacle for the everyday passersby in the urban Chinese metros. If spectacle is thought to be a grandiose and extravagant display, these urban advertising screens are not meeting the definition due to their lackluster content, luminosity and placement. This common understanding of spectacle is not quite fitting when describing the environment that the urban Chinese metros harbor. Instead, Berry makes sense of these screens with the term, “integrated spectacle.” A term first coined by Guy Debord to indicate the capitalist spectacle that increasingly “permeates all reality,” it is clear that advertisers are linked to these logics.3Guy Debord, as quoted in Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 25. These advertisers want to reinforce the consumerist environment that people travel through daily to increase the comfort we feel within the personality of this space. As Berry writes, “we no longer gaze at the spectacle but live in it and it lives in us.”4Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 13. It becomes our everyday.

Both advertisers and metro dwellers perpetuate the built environment of the integrated spectacle. Advertisers know the attention of their metro clientele is fleeting due to the fast-paced nature of that environment. Berry explains how the “logic of ‘exposure’ driving out-of-home advertising on the Shanghai public transport system […] reveals anxiety on the part of corporate and state advertisers.”5Ibid, 14 To further elaborate, advertisers very well know the tendency of the integrated spectacle, and they work with it. They know their audience will be in a rush, not paying much attention to what is around them. They have two options then: stand out – be the biggest and most spectacular advertisement, always coming up with new creative ideas; or, expose the company’s ideas in rapid succession to hopefully subliminally advertise, bombarding the everyday person with thoughts of your company’s product. Subliminal advertising may not be psychologically proven – there remains much debate in this field. Nonetheless, as advertisers operate with these assumptions in mind, these same ads are in fact repeatedly being shown and these companies are continuing to do well and gain revenue. In addition, the production process is expensive and time consuming. Due to the expensive nature of screen technology, most metro advertising boards are lower quality than would be found in Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, for example. Under these circumstances, on the part of the advertiser, the integrated spectacle is perpetuated in metro China.

By comparison, a large spectacular and eye-catching outdoor advertisement set high on a building on Shanghai’s commercial Nanjing Road. Photo taken by Emma Suzanne Hamilton.

As for the city-dwellers, they play an important part in the perpetuation of the environment of the Chinese metro, too. Their reactions to the exposure tactics call for advertisers to continuously add repetition to the format of their methods. A vicious cycle is ongoing when the urban inhabitants’ attention spans lessen. Metro advertising is a dance between the consumer and the capitalist who wishes to catch the attention without shocking the everyday person out of their comfortable metro environment.

Why is understanding the built and LED environment of the screened city significant? It is important for everyday passersby to be cognizant of the media tactics used by the advertisers. Becoming aware of the surrounding environment allows for critical observation about how this space may be affecting you and the habits you indulge in. Why don’t you notice them daily? If you do, what is calling your attention? If you are not noticing them, do they still affect you? These environments may be more telling than what first meets the eye. There is a certain amount of conformity that comes with the inhabitation of these spaces. The people within the space and the advertisers that choose to advertise there come together, without speaking to one another, to form and sustain this environment which we have contently or comfortably settled into. Comfortably settling traps metro-using citizens in a structural tug of war between themselves and the advertisers, preventing artistic and creative growth on both ends of the spectrum. Metro advertising literacy can help break these walls down to create a progressive environment for all who come in contact with it.


1 Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 13-29
3 Guy Debord, as quoted in Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 25.
4 Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 13.
5 Ibid, 14
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