I trust that I’m not the only one who was horrified to read in Advertising Age yesterday that the city of Venice, Italy, is opening up St. Mark’s Square for advertising. It marks the first time in the piazza’s 900-year history that advertising will grace this remarkable scene. Large electronic billboards will be placed on scaffolding, and the cash from the program is said to help pay for the restoration of the square.
Some predict that this will be another great opportunity for brands to connect with consumers. Mike Segrue, Global Chief Client Officer at out-of-home agency Kinetic Worldwide, captured the opportunity in saying:
The screens in St. Mark’s will be a great chance for high-end brands to reach a largely upscale audience… The careful vetting of copy and creative should allow Venice city council to retain some control and, of course, in the end important renovations will be completed. It is probably a relatively harmless necessary evil.”
Kudos to Segrue for his optimism and acceptance of the idea as a “necessary evil.” But I fear that this modest proposal will do much more harm than good. I believe that consumers are increasingly hostile to the way advertising has invaded nearly every square inch of eye space, and by bringing its touch to a 900-year-old historic landmark, advertising brands may find angry reactions instead of equity building.
I believe anger will come from an overall impression that “enough is enough” and that a line has been crossed. Recall the ill-fated attempt by McDonald’s to advertise on report cards. It was another example of a government body looking to embrace a “necessary evil” in order to pay the bills. But both local and national citizens rose against the plan and it was abandoned within weeks. Advertising in St. Mark’s Square will remind people who have visited the spot of a special time in their lives, and legions of future tourists will be disappointed to see the city of Venice sell out.
There are so many other ways that both government and marketers could renovate St. Mark’s without meaningless ad messages. I could see American Express or Visa create a global campaign about saving the square, raising money and contributing to the renovation. A small, tasteful plaque could be placed in the cobblestones to thank the brand and its members for their support. And it’s not too late! What a PR opportunity for a brand to propose this solution and come in and rescue the product from a necessary evil.
For now, though, we’ll have to chalk up another one for meaningless advertising and the continued belief that innovative advertising interruption will cure all ills. I leave you with a few of my favorite photos from my two visits to St. Mark’s Square.
(My wife, Stephanie, from 1999)
(Me while backpacking, from 1994)