How Manhattan's Penn Plaza Became a Mini Times Square

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NEW YORK ( -- One of the most visually striking sights attendees at the Republican National Convention will encounter this week is the dramatic transformation of the area known as Penn Plaza into a Times

The Penn Plaza area of Midtown is now thick with huge advertisement signs and displays.
Square-like mediascape of gargantuan advertisements.

Though the term Penn Plaza is widely used to refer to the Midtown area around the structure that houses both the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and Madison Square Garden, the correct name technically is the Penn Center Subdistrict.

Vornado Realty
The area came into being as a major media landscape only in the last several years, largely through the efforts of Vornado Realty Trust. Vornado, owner of some of the area's larger commercial properties such as the Hotel Pennsylvania, collaborated with various outdoor companies, including Clear Channel Communications, to persuade the New York City Planning Commission to allow large-scale signage in the area. In late 2001, the commission approved the subdistrict.

"Outdoor signage for the area was viewed as a way to illuminate the area and bring an energy that results from the creative [advertising] and lighting," said Barry Kula, vice president of sales and marketing for Clear Channel. "That's what we borrowed from Times Square." The result: The Penn Center Subdistrict is a small-scale replica of its better-known neighbor seven blocks north of Madison Square Garden.

Politically themed ads
This week the new advertising destination took on a decidedly political flavor with ads aimed at the nearly 5,000 delegates and additional thousands of politicians and media types who will be taking in the Midtown sights during the convention.

Soaring illuminated signs and billboards, some as high as 100 feet in the air, carry messages ranging from the seriously political (Planned Parenthood of New York City's "Is America Pro-Choice? Yes!") to the satirical (Comedy Central's "Welcome to New York. That smell? Freedom") and including a general appeal to politicos (Budweiser's "It's time for a Grand Old Party").

Marketers from Anheuser-Busch to Nextel have bought outdoor space to catch the attention of those gathering for the party's work of formalizing its platform and nominating George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for reelection.

Captain Morgan
Some, like Diageo's Captain Morgan rum, have campaigns built around election themes, making the RNC-timed event a logical buy. "The Captain is irreverent, fun and a party icon," said Hernando Ruiz-Jimenez, brand director for Captain Morgan. "The ad fits with his image and with our grass-roots movement." The message -- "New Yorkers support Captain Morgan. The candidate that knows how to party" -- on the outdoor ad is reiterated on taxi tops and in other, more guerilla media venues.

For others, such as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, an organization whose mission, keeping abortion legal, is contrary to the Republican Party platform, outdoor signage is a "perfect [way] to make a statement to the world and the people attending the convention," said Gloria Feldt, Planned Parenthood's president.

Still smaller than Times Square
Penn Center, to be sure, is relatively small, financially speaking, compared to Times Square. Clear Channel's Mr. Kula estimates the total value of outdoor media in Penn Center as $15 million compared with an estimated $70 million for Times Square. But the huge concentration of New Yorkers who pass through the area each day -- 376,000 commute on three different rail lines into the city daily -- combined with the congested traffic, make the area attractive in media buyers' eyes.

"Things are slow-moving there," said outdoor buyer Dee Prier, vice president of Grey Global Group's MediaCom. "It's a good opportunity to see a sign."

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