Johnnie Walker Keep Walking

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 walking.

About the Author: Paul Shaw is a calligrapher and typographer working in New York City. In his 20 professional years as a lettering designer, he has created custom lettering and logos for many leading companies, including Avon, Lord & Taylor, Rolex, Clairol and Esté Lauder. Paul has taught calligraphy and typography at New York's Parsons School of Design for over 10 years and conducted workshops in New York and Italy. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe.