New York City's subway system is, among other things, a very large advertising platform.
Around 5.6 million riders pass through the subway on any given weekday. And thanks to the shaky cellular service underground, many of them actually look up from their smartphones at the posters on station walls and rows of ads that line subway car interiors.
Increasingly, those advertisements are for startups or technology companies, who, surprisingly, still appreciate the power of offline advertising. But if you look up from your smartphone and actually pay close attention to the ads, you will find a pretty grim reflection of New York staring back at you. The best advertising sells a narrative alongside a product, and the story startups and tech companies are selling New Yorkers is a society that embraces class distinctions—a modern day Downton Abbey, where servants can be called with a touch of the smartphone.
Take, for example, the food-ordering app Seamless which launched an ad campaign on bus stops and trains in September that it called "How New York Eats." The ads used "typography inspired by classic New York restaurant signage" to encourage New Yorkers to order out with jokey one-liners like "Avoid cooking like you avoid Times Square," "Cooking is so Jersey," and "Over 8 million people in New York City and we help you avoid them all."
The campaign was met with general praise by advertising press and consultants, though Food52's Ali Slagle decried its put-down of the act of cooking:
Cooking = eating with effort = :(
Seamless = eating with ease = :)
The ads do more than that: they create the idea that a young, cosmopolitan New Yorker shouldn't cook, that it's something they should outsource if they want to be a true New Yorker. Cooking denotes uncoolness, or old age, or, shiver, Jersey-ness.
The ads are tongue-in-cheek, but the New Yorkers they portray are anti-social ("Over 8 million people in New York City, and we help you avoid them all"), ethnocentric ("Let someone who can spell Baba Ghanoush make it"), and elitist in the fashion of a 1970s New Yorker cover ("Cooking is so Jersey"). They're the boring, twenty-something upper crust of New York as envisioned by a tech company.
The ads reflect a trend identified by Lauren Smiley last year in Matter: "The Shut-In Economy." "The on-demand world isn’t about sharing at all," she wrote. "It’s about being served."
Smiley pointed out that the effective function of many so-called sharing economy and delivery companies is to allow (generally young, upwardly mobile) people to spend less time interacting with others (so they can spend more time, not having fun, but working). "As income inequality increases, the shut-in model is tailor-made for the new polarized extremes," she wrote.
Sandra Glading, the PR director for Grubhub, which owns Seamless, told me in an email that the humorous campaign "was meant to appeal to the no-nonsense nature of New Yorkers, and to showcase the fact that Seamless is a staple in the life of many of the folks who live in NYC," from those with tiny kitchens to those who use Seamless to "supplement their cooking, while they work to maintain a work/life balance." She said it was the company's "most socially charged and successful campaign to date," though she declined to quantify that success.
Another technology company who has advertised on the New York subway is TaskRabbit, which allows customers to hire "taskers" for cleaning, moving, handywork, and other odd jobs. Its tagline? "We do chores. You Live Life." The ads are different than Seamless's, still cheeky but more earnest; they show young people enjoying themselves, usually exercising, alongside the text of a similarly named chore. So there's a woman jogging with the words "Running Errands" or a man at a rock-climbing gym alongside the phrase "Hanging Shelves."
This campaign is less insulting towards those who are providing a service, but does make them invisible, part of a "we" that actually translates to "independent contractors."
TaskRabbit's VP of marketing, Rob Willey, told me that taskers were just happy to be getting more work.
"We believe our biggest challenge is convincing you not to do it yourself," said Willey. The company's ideal customers are, as Willey put it to me, "overwhelmed with how much they need to accomplish."
That is, to be fair, how most of my New York friends would probably describe themselves. But again, the campaign reinforces that its target audience should have a servant class take care of their basic needs, so that they can be free to do the things they love—those things usually being the more perfect sculpting of their bodies.
The idea, ostensibly, is to showcase what could be done with newfound free time, but the person Willey described sounded like a start-up projecting themselves onto a city. A more honest campaign would probably show a twenty-something lying in bed with the warm glow of a computer lighting her face: "We do chores. You sit crippled by anxiety for 6 hours."
Taken together, these technology companies' ideal New Yorker (or Londoner, Angeleno, San Franciscan, any city dweller really) is overworked, stressed, and too focused on accomplishments to bother cooking or cleaning. That sounds like some New Yorkers I know, but not many, and certainly not the majority.
But what do I know? According to both TaskRabbit and Seamless, the ad campaigns were a success.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at email@example.com