POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 13, 2014
NEW YORK » Eric Justusson, a software engineer, was walking to work from Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge when he first saw the enigmatic billboard, the words "Easy As" in massive letters followed by a 12-foot-high picture of a slice of pie. For BJ Gruber, an actor who lives in Queens, it was the words "Cool as," followed by a photo of a cucumber slice that he spotted while driving on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Soledad Tejada, a high school student from Brooklyn, noticed one with "The Big" and a tremendous hunk of cheese in her home borough.
New York's most famous billboard was fictional, but for all of the metaphorical symbolism in "The Great Gatsby," the looming eyes at least seemed to advertise something specific: the services of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. These food ads, however, do not mention any company or product for sale. That is because what these billboards are selling are the billboards themselves.
Richard Schaps, the chief executive officer of the outdoor advertising company Van Wagner Communications, does not like it when other companies let a billboard sit blank during down time (boring, he says), leave up a previous ad free after its time (devaluing the concept of billboard ads, which can cost $20,000 to $50,000 a month in New York) or slap on a "Your Ad Here" sign ("not classy").
"I insisted we should have something beautiful," Schaps said, adding that he hoped not only to entertain New Yorkers and promote his company, but also to educate his customers about what made an effective billboard ad. (The food signs also grace billboards in Los Angeles and Boston.) "Ours catch your eye and make you look twice - I think we do a better job than some ads," he said.
People definitely noticed. The Big Cheese found its way onto Flickr, while Justusson and Gruber each eventually took photos of the signs and posted them on Twitter to see if anyone knew what was behind this oblique campaign. "At first I thought it was an ineffective ad for a grocery store," Gruber said, though he added that it ultimately did its job on a certain level. "I'm still thinking about it."
Tejada eventually surmised who was behind the campaign but said friends had guessed it might be for a supermarket or to get people to eat better. "That seemed pretty far-fetched," she said (especially given the presence of pie). "It seemed like a pretty cool if weird and obscure campaign."
Justusson, who works in the advertising business, thought it might be "an inside joke or a clever advertising puzzle I was not aware of" before ultimately reaching the same conclusion as Tejada (though he thought the billboard he saw should have said, "Advertising Here Is as Easy as Pie").
A previous Van Wagner campaign included a photo of a giraffe accompanied by the word "stretch" and one of a whale with the word "splash." Liam Tomlinson, Van Wagner's creative director, said that the animal campaign, which began before he starting working at Van Wagner, was hugely popular with children, while parents tried to figure out what zoo or museum was behind it.
"It worked because it used these buzzwords in branding with vanilla images," he said. "People are so used to things with hard-core branding, and these had no logo."
Last year, Schaps told Tomlinson that he wanted something fresh. It took him a while to find something equally simple. "Outdoor ads should have big, bold colors and images and three to five words," Tomlinson said - and be neutral enough not to offend anyone while leaving a smile on people's faces. (Potential advertisers, he said, know these signs mean the space is available.)
He was inspired by a long-ago course at Pratt Institute in visual communication in which he had to put a word and an image together and find a third meaning. "I was sitting on my couch when the phrase 'Cool as a cucumber' popped into my head, and then I thought of Richard as 'The Big Cheese,'" he said, adding that he was also influenced by the pop artist James Rosenquist, who started as a billboard painter and found that creating absurdly large-scale images of objects "could change their meaning and their presence."
Creating and installing these images are expensive, but their shelf life is enhanced by the fact that they rotate around the city and are soon replaced by paying ads. Still, Schaps and Tomlinson don't want these billboards to grow stale. Tomlinson is contemplating another campaign, but he also has plans for a new round of food-inspired puns. "I kept some in my back pocket from my original list," he said.
Among the possibilities are "Cherry on Top," which has already had an out-of-town tryout in Los Angeles; "Piece of Cake," which Tomlinson sees as an homage to the painter, Wayne Tebow; and one that would perfectly sum up the entire exercise: "Red Herring."
Stuart Miller, New York Times