Appropriately for Hallowe'en, commuters at Canary Wharf station are in for a nasty shock this morning. Two ginormous digital screens have been installed and are now belching out advertising.
Commuters won't be surprised by the screens. These were installed over the last couple of months in the ticket hall, erected at first under a sheath of scaffolding which passengers walked beneath, then later unwrapped. Commuters won't be surprised by the digital displays either. These were switched on last Friday, broadcasting a colourful artistic image by Mark Titchner to make Londoners think, and to brighten up their day. But they will be surprised by the commercials, because today's the first day the screens have been used for advertising.
The art was the cunning bit, because it allowed TfL to publish a press release on Friday praising the existence of the big screens and the uplifting message portrayed thereon. The art allowed the Mayor to give the screens his blessing, purposefully aligned as they were to his #Londonisopen campaign. The art gave the screens intrinsic cultural value, enriching the journeys of all those passing through. But from this morning the art is sidelined, after only three days, and now advertising is the dominant feature.
These are massive screens, 7.2m wide and 4m high, hung low enough below the ceiling to completely dominate Canary Wharf's cathedral-like space. They're double-sided screens, all the better to grab passengers' attention coming in and going out. They're officially sanctioned, designed in collaboration with the original station architects Foster and Partners. They're accentuated because the lighting in the concourse has been subtly dimmed to make the messages stand out more. They're valuable real estate, bringing in considerable revenue from a stream of advertisers aiming to reach a quality market. And they're the first example of how TfL is now going all out to embrace digital advertising, as part of a campaign called Hello London.
This is the campaign's flagship project, targeting what's probably the biggest space on the network and the wealthiest passengers too. The station's layout conspires to maximise customer interaction, with the screens visible across Canary Wharf's nave-like atrium, and a bank of deep escalators providing a captive audience all the way down. As for the reason why the advertising comes in six ten-second slots, that's because it takes about sixty seconds to glide down from the piazza and walk forward to the screens, so nobody need miss out.
The cycle kicks off with an advert for Lloyds Bank featuring a giant black horse, then slips into a promo for Google's new Pixel phone. Their opening image of a blank white screen with search engine box may be the most minimalist image this huge screen ever shows. Slot number three retains the art, that's Mark Titchner's 'No Them Only Us', and then the ads kick in again. Hewlett Packard have paid for slot four, then a dramatically bright orange background flashes up to help promote Thomson Reuters, a media agency based close by. Mark's #Londonisopen image is back again for the final slot, and then the black horse reappears as the whole cycle goes round again. One third art, two thirds ads.
This isn't the first time there's been advertising at Canary Wharf. The atrium has been bedecked with sponsorship several times, generally for a bank or financial service, with ads and banners plastered around the concrete void. But none of these moved, and it's the animated nature of the new screens which makes them particularly intrusive. It won't be easy to look away on entering the station when twenty foot high graphics and slogans are dancing all over your field of vision. It takes something special to drag the average punter's attention away from the little screen in their hand, but this new intervention manages just that. Sorry, were you lost in your own private thoughts? Stop that right now, engage and prepare to consume.
It's also not the first time there's been a big screen at Canary Wharf. TfL installed a massive screen at the far end of the ticket hall in 2012 as part of their excellent Art on the Underground project. This was one of London's largest public projection screens - far bigger than these latest two - and was used to present films and videos by leading contemporary and historical artists. A pair of benches was set up in front, carefully curated collections of themed works were shown, and anyone using the station could visit, or even pop in for free by downloading a Canary Wharf Screen ticket from the art.tfl.gov.uk website.
Almost nobody went. The screen played films to an audience-free zone at the dead eastern end of the station, invisible from the main flurry of activity up west, with passengers required to walk through an additional set of ticket gates to reach it. Even commuters coming up the farthest escalator were facing the wrong way to spot this secret cinema, and those entering from Montgomery Square would have rushed past too. Several seasons of videos were screened, and good stuff too, often in conjunction with the BFI. But the eighth and final season expired on 17th August 2014, as a forlorn poster facing this forlorn facility reveals, and since then the screen has been dark. Art in an inaccessible location has had its day. The future is advertising you cannot miss.
And there's a lot more of this commercial stuff on its way, targeting you, the London Audience.
Hello London will soon be "expanding its digital footprint" and "introducing new high impact formats", of which the Canary Wharf screens are premium examples. Expect to see more "captivating sequential messaging" alongside escalators, and "digital landmarks on bulwark walls of select, high footfall central London stations". What's more, new Crossrail stations are being deliberately designed with "a wide range of innovative and high impact formats" in mind, to "best complement the stations' large proportions and modern design elements." Advertising is at the heart of TfL's new Underground Station Design Idiom, which means promotional electronic media being deliberately integrated into the fabric of stations old and new.
TfL needs the money, of course. Boris set TfL on a more commercial course to help offset cuts in funding, and Sadiq's insistence on freezing fares for four years only makes the yawning gap greater. Hello London is charged with raising £1.1bn over the next eight years, which sounds a lot, but when over 1.3 billion tube journeys are made each year, it's less than a 10p increase in fares would have raised instead. For this there'll be dozens of visual intrusions, or "enhancements to the customer experience" as the project has it, pushing brands in your face as you travel like never before. Adverts that move are only the start of it - Hello London already has plans for "a Christmas themed station renaming" in partnership with Westfield, which can only be the thin end of a very thick wedge.
You may not mind all this, if it means travelling around the network a fraction cheaper than would otherwise be the case. You may even think it necessary, given that austerity has changed the country's economic mindset in recent years. But there are many ways to adopt commercial solutions, not all of them so intrusive, nor so unforgiving. Canary Wharf station has enjoyed 17 years as an architectural masterpiece, with a vast subterranean vista to take the breath away on entry. And now it's an advertising hoarding you can't take your eyes off, feeding brands and slogans to the London Audience in return for propping up taxation. From Hallowe'en 2016 onwards, Hello London is unlikely to ever say goodbye.