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Several months ago Johnnie Walker
updated its five-year old brand campaign, through the creation of a
series of banners, billboards and scrims that depict a posterized golden
Johnnie Walker trade character blithely overcoming a series of
obstacles along a golden line. With his top hat, waistcoat, cane and
boots, the dapper Striding Man magically climbs ladders, leaps from one
rooftop to another, walks tightropes, sidesteps pits, negotiates frayed
ropes and barbed wire, and avoids rain clouds. He is the personification
of good luck. The campaign is called “Keep Walking.”
Although I do not drink Johnnie Walker Black Label (nor any other
whiskey) I have found the minimalist campaign to be witty and amusing. I
had enjoyed seeing what new obstacles had been invented for the
Striding Man to surmount. But recently, my enjoyment turned to annoyance
when my wife and I traveled to Boston to see the Art Deco 1910–1939
exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts a few weekends ago.
We went by Amtrak. When we arrived at South Station I noticed that
the atrium had been outfitted with a series of Johnnie Walker and “Keep
Walking” banners, some of which (like the barbed wire, the rain cloud,
and a flock of geese) were, to my pleasure, new to me. The next day
when we returned to South Station to take the train back to New York my
pleasure disappeared. The first inkling of trouble came when we wanted
to adjust my wife’s ticket. We looked around the station for the Amtrak
ticket windows to no avail. Our sight was continually blocked not only
by the kiosks in the middle of the atrium but by the large black “Keep
Walking” banners hanging from the ceiling. When we finally found an
information desk we asked the agent where the ticket windows were he
pointed behind him. We looked and, for a moment or so, saw nothing but a
series of vertical black banners—alternately saying “Johnnie Walker”
and “Keep Walking”—protruding from the wall. Then, below three of the
banners we noticed signs for the T, the commuter railroad and Amtrak.
The windows themselves were out of sight in an alcove.
The vertical Johnnie Walker banners overshadowed the ticket window
signs for several reasons: they were four to five times as large, they
were placed directly over the signs, and they were black. The
signs—especially the one for the subway with its black T on a white
ground—were virtually invisible.
Later, as we sat in the atrium waiting for our train we would
periodically look for an indicator to tell us if it was on time and
which track it would be at. But, like the ticket window signs, the
indicators were hard to locate. With very few trains running they were
often blank. This meant that they were just additional black rectangles
amidst the many black “Keep Walking” banners. The only indicator that
could hold its own with the banners is the central one because it nearly
matches them in size. The others, located at the exits to the tracks,
are only one fourth as big.
At South Station Johnnie Walker’s branding environment is in
conflict with the wayfinding needs of travelers. There are seven large
black banners on the wall above the exits to the tracks that combine to
form a single “Keep Walking” image: starting from the left a golden line
goes across five banners and onto a sixth that has the Striding Man
while a seventh contains the slogan. Six additional large black banners,
with various obstacles interrupting the golden line, hang from the
ceiling; and two more—one with a dotted version of the line—are placed
on the sidewalls. A long banner—with a cut-out to allow the station
clock to be visible—runs across the back wall, over the main entrance
from the street and subway. Finally, both side walls have the
aforementioned vertical banners with the slogan and company name. There
are six on each wall for a total of twelve. Other than the food and book
kiosks, there is no other advertising in the space. Beyond the ticket
window signs and train indicators already mentioned, and the information
desk, there are no other transportation signs in the atrium.
In New York the “Keep Walking” campaign is just one more element in
the urban visual environment. The banners draped on the sides of
apartment buildings and skyscrapers do not interfere with traffic signs.
Similarly, the advertisements for a single company that blanket some
New York City subway cars do not distract riders from being able to read
maps and public service announcements. The difference between the
situation at South Station and a subway car is that in the latter the
spaces allocated for commercial and public graphics are clearly
demarcated while in the former the commercial banners have been placed
in spaces that previously were empty.
South Station is a reminder that a great advertising campaign can
have unintended consequences, consequences that adversely affect the
public good. This is one time when the operators of South Station should
have rejected the ad campaign and just told Johnnie Walker to keep on
I have been documenting typographic tattoos for more than ten years. So much can be expressed typographically—intimate messages etched in flesh. This
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