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As twenty-first century citizens living in New York, it’s nearly impossible to envision Times Square without ads. Next to the New Year’s Eve Ball, the most recognizable Times Square icon is likely the outsized, electric Coca-Cola billboard. But what would the world’s most identifiable city center look like without a single advertisement? One intrepid Photoshop user decided to find out.
Over the course of 16 hours (and more than a few computer crashes), the artist managed to remove every single ad from a pre-pandemic photo of New York’s most commerce-saturated intersection. The result is a shockingly muted, neutral, nondescript city center that could be plucked from anywhere and perhaps resembles something closer to Times Square’s original iteration — Longacre Square.
In the late 1800s, the midtown intersection was known as a carriage transit hub, and took its name from London’s horse and carriage trade center. When the New York Times purchased a flagship building on W42nd Street in 1904 the intersection was renamed Times Square, cementing the neighborhood moniker as an advertisement in itself. The change coincided with the rise of commercial theaters, music halls, hotels, and restaurants in the area and grew Times Square into the branding behemoth it is today.
Reaction to the stark removal of everything that makes Times Square, well, Times Square was strong among Reddit users surveying the post (which incidentally was not the first time someone had tried the experiment). While some users marveled at a break from today’s ad-saturated culture, others were disappointed with the lack of character in an ad-free Midtown — “Honestly it looks dystopian AF. Like whichever book referred to New York as a concrete jungle. Very bland colors, maybe that classic Apple 1984 commercial going on in the next building lol”.
Another user agreed, “Bright neon glow and flashing signs and displays for this and that are part of what instills that lively city vibe to me. The ‘after’ pic in the OP looks so stale and lifeless and the definition of ‘concrete jungle’ to me”.
Redefining the city’s most recognizable square has been a popular project since the dawn of photo editing software — in 2011, Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame teamed up with none other than advertising agency The Barbarian Group to create “No Ad: New York”, a virtual exhibition of an ad-free Times Square.
While the “No Ad: New York” project is long over, there are other groups tweaking the ways in which New Yorkers experience their ad-friendly city. “No Ad: NYC” is a new app enabling commuters to transform their subway ads into contemporary artworks using real-time augmented reality technology.
But whether you prefer ads or artwork, it’s clear that most will agree — New York isn’t New York without something to look at.
UPDATE 12/17/2021: Newsweek identified the Photoshop artist as Rinat Rizvanov