It's been a a year since TfL hung two huge LED screens in the heart of Canary Wharf station. They blaze, the surrounding lighting dimmed for added contrast, drilling advertising messages into the eyeballs of millions of passing passengers. The CEO of Exterion Media described the screens as "enhancing the customer experience through delivering a truly world class estate". He may be keen, but my experience has not been enhanced.
But Canary Wharf was just the beginning, because TfL have coffers to fill.
Another big screen has recently been installed at King's Cross St Pancras. Specifically it's attached to the balcony in the western ticket hall, on the St Pancras side, close to the Circle line ticket barriers. It's nowhere near as big as the screens at Canary Wharf, but it's still much bigger than the Tube usually employs, and will be pretty much unmissable to those passing underneath. I've not seen it up and running, but its dancing pixels look like being a permanent distraction, and a full time moneyspinner.
It's a fair bet that the original designer of the western ticket hall didn't have a commercial intrusion in mind. Instead it feels like TfL's Chief of Economic Deliverance walked round all the prime stations in Zone 1 looking for big high-up rectangular gaps, noted this one with glee, and hey presto a huge digital screen has appeared. Expect more. Some of you may even have noticed more at tube stations elsewhere. Do tell.
Update: Apparently the King's Cross screen is for an Art on the Underground project, 'The Bureaucracy of Angels', a 12 minute film depicting the demolition of 100 migrant boats in Sicily. It's supposed to be running from 28 September to 25 November, so should be a temporary intervention, although I've only ever seen a blank screen when walking through.
Meanwhile you might be wondering where all the digital projectors on tube station platforms have gone. These large white boxes first appeared in 2008, firing moving adverts onto the opposite wall between trains, but last year they were all switched off. I was going to say they've all been removed, but then I found this one on the southbound Victoria line platform at King's Cross, dormant and a bit grubby.
These projectors vanished because Exterion Media are bringing in a better system. It'll be bigger (half as as big again), brighter (twice as bright) and with enhanced HD screen resolution. They call it DX3.
DX3 is also running over two years late, so there's a blessing, but the new projectors will finally start to appear next month. 20 units will be live by the end of November, and 60 by the end of January, with the focus being busy stations in Zone 1. Expect to see them popping up in Liverpool Street, King's Cross St. Pancras, Waterloo, Oxford Circus and Bank, amongst others.
According to the people whose job it is to get excited about these things, the DX3 network will target "the ultimate premium consumer audience", reaching an annual footfall of 750 million with 5.5 million fortnightly impressions. These same people also describe the act of being shown moving adverts while you wait for trains as "a positive disruption to the everyday commute", on the basis that the average passenger would rather be sold to than be bored.
In reality, the advertisers need to provide something pretty damned wow to drag our eyes away from our phones. Ever since wifi was installed at stations most of us whip out our phones and check what the world's up to while we wait for trains underground, hence the hope that dazzling animated adverts projected in front of us will prove even more attractive. Stop watching what you wanted to watch and look at we want to show you, is the unspoken intention. And because most of us are really rather predictable, we'll probably fall for it and help provide TfL with their money.
Also coming soon are continuous 'ribbon' video screens along the sides of escalators, replacing the sequence of single screens we see today. Several escalators are already ribbon-ready, for example at Tottenham Court Road, with shiny blank metal surfaces awaiting all the electronic gubbins being slapped on top. Again the intention is to stop you whipping out your own phone for 20 seconds and to stare lovingly at all the marketing messages instead.
Underground advertising will become even more entrenched once Crossrail starts up next year. Unlike, say, the Jubilee line extension of 20 years ago, all of Crossrail's new stations have been specifically designed with spaces for advertising in mind. Expect to see "a wide range of innovative and high impact formats that best complement the stations' large proportions and modern design elements" as you pass through, including vertically mounted TV screens between the platform edge doors.
And it's not just the tube. Drivers aren't being left out, as TfL scour their arterial estate in search of locations for giant screens. Here's the big screen above the underpass at the Sun In The Sands roundabout, playing out ads for Ford, British Airways and LBC to vehicles on the A2.
Other pixel-based distractions are to be found looming above the A3 in Kingston, the A40 in Ealing, the North Circular in Brent, the Uxbridge Road in Hillingdon and the A12 in Leytonstone. Digital roadside advertising is certainly nothing new, but what's fresh is TfL's emboldened embrace of their outdoor portfolio.
Tube advertising is nothing new either, it's been with us since Victorian times. What's changing is the scale of the distraction we customers are being presented with as we travel, no longer just multi-coloured static rectangles but brightly illuminated consciousness-piercing screens.
Ultimately we can blame our leaders rather than TfL. We live in a country where the government is extinguishing the subsidies it pays for public transport, and in a city where the Mayor has hamstrung investment by imposing a four year fare freeze. Both policies are nakedly political rather than economically sane, and both conspire to focus TfL on raising money via every other means possible.
Bear this in mind the next time you see another intrusive screen has gone up, and your brain nags you to watch what it has to say. As flexible dynamic messaging takes hold, going forward, there's little hope this flashy underground filmshow will ever go away.