Signs of the Times: Fading Ads Hint at the Future of Marketing

An Author's Stroll Through a World of Ghost Messages

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If it's still a little hard to digest Bob Garfield's pronouncement that "Advertising is not the future of marketing," maybe it's time to take a walk with Ben Passikoff, or at least sit down with his book.
'The Writing on the Wall,' by Ben Passikoff
'The Writing on the Wall,' by Ben Passikoff

Ben is the 17-year-old author of "The Writing on the Wall," a high-school-project-turned-
coffee-table-book (AuthorHouse, $40) filled with photos of "ghost signs" -- those fantastic, faded, hand-painted ads you see on the sides of old buildings.

There are signs for garter belts and castor oil, men's hats and ladies' hotels. In other words: signs for the times that aren't coming back, no matter how much folks like me wish we could wake up, just for a day, in 1927. (And then eat lunch at an Automat.)

The lesson one gleans, however reluctantly, is that whatever seems absolutely immutable, isn't. Not what is advertised. Not how it is advertised. And certainly not the advertising job you go to every morning.

As Ben and I strolled up from Greenwich Village on a hunt for old signs, we were accompanied by his father, Brand Keys President Robert Passikoff. Proud papa used the opportunity to talk about his pet peeve: advertisers wasting their money on messages the public can't possibly believe. Young Passikoff listened politely, then talked about his pet peeve: doormen whose attitude you wouldn't believe. He'd had to charm quite a few of them into letting him come in and take pictures from their roofs. Some, alas, could not be charmed.

In between all this, the signs we spotted were talking, too, telling us the history of New York.

"They used to put them near churches and synagogues, because they knew that, once a week, people would see the signs," said Ben. Clever placement.

Generally the ads were for things close by -- a soda fountain, or a milliner's. "Before this book, I didn't even know what a milliner was," Ben confessed. (OK, 20-somethings: Look it up.)

One still perfectly legible sign on a former stable on East 17th Street reads, "To Let: Carriages, Coupes, Hansoms, Light Wagons." It also offers to board horses by the month.

Folks will always need their horses, right?

Another sign was for Facit brand typewriters.

Writers will always need those, will they not? Especially one from Facit.

But the largest number of signs, by far, were for garments and everything associated with the making of them, from sewing machines to pinking sheers to buttons. Some buildings listed dozens of businesses bustling inside: H. Goldfarb, Ladies Hats; LilyKnit Silk Underwear; Harris Suspenders... .

Men will always need suspenders, right?

That was certainly the assumption. Businesses kept opening up. "By 1900, the value and the output of the clothing industry was three times that of the second-largest industry, sugar refining," according to Ben's book.

Sugar refining? Who knew? But what's really amazing is how intrinsic the garment industry was to creating modern day New York. With garments came fashion, with fashion came chic, with chic came buzz. And with buzz, one could argue, came media and advertising.

And then ...

Things changed. Maybe the garment industry didn't exactly go the way of sugar refining, but it had to adapt to challenging times -- exactly what is happening now with that other quintessential New York industry: marketing.

Just as hand-painted signs made way for print, radio and TV -- and even to new, high-tech outdoor signs -- those media have to make way for the new, too. The industry is evolving, and those who don't evolve with it will fade like old paint.

Take a walk, spy some signs and you can see for yourself: Change is the history of commerce. The writing's on the wall.
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