When artwork on a train ceiling communicates

In our world of overcommunication, advertisers are always looking for new ways to catch people’s attention. Some do gimmicks by transforming their brand ambassadors, who sample products on the streets, as street performers. Others set up makeshift storefronts through mobile trucks, as food trucks have pioneered the concept of mobile dining. Others engage in viral promotions and subliminal messages, which may seem too gimmicky for smart consumers who see beyond the gimmick and into the shameless promotion.

There are times when advertising goes past the conventional but also carefully stops short at being overdone. They understand advertising. They know how to catch attention and also gain trust.

A few weeks ago, I was riding the northbound Red Line at night and I overheard two girls looking at the train ceiling and started discussing it. On the ceiling were several poster-size artwork of the current exhibit at the local museum, Art Institute. They conveyed images of European medieval art and armor, and I thought it was clever to lend an artistic mood to train commuters. Train rides are tricky for any activity; you can’t exactly read a book unless you have a seat, and even if most people have their earphones on to tune everything out, eyes are still active and commuters are always scanning the train staring at ads and trying to kill boredom until they reach their stops.

I didn’t find the museum’s name on any of these artwork, but was able to connect the images to other ads publicized by the museum. When the girls started talking about it, almost everyone in the train looked up, and conversations abound about how it reminds them of their trip to the Sistine Chapel in Italy, the museums they’ve been to in other cities, and the fact that they didn’t notice these posters until now.

Through a marketer’s eyes, this was a brilliant move. The girls who started talking about it engaged others on the train even if they never uttered a word to anyone else. Their gestures and giggles were enough to compel train riders including myself to look up and allow the artwork to spark new thoughts about our individual experiences with museums and art. It led me to think about my experience as a volunteer at LACMA a few years back, which then made me realize how I was more artistically inclined back then, ultimately sparking an urge to schedule a visit to rekindle a lifestyle of art appreciation. This is exactly what these posters set out to do.

By positioning this form of media in an unexpected place, the Art Institute was able to pique curiosity and intrigue as it created the experience of being inside a museum in the closed confines of the Red Line train. Not just any other train line, but the line that many people take to go to the museum. A convincing way to attract the masses to pay a visit, scheduled or spontaneous.

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