A few months ago, the city of Philadelphia decided to leverage its trash cans for advertising revenue. Through an outside management company, Green City Solutions, it offered hundreds of public Bigbelly containers for paid messaging, with 5 percent of proceeds going to city waste-management projects.
Tom Wingert, vice president of marketing for City Fitness gyms, got a call in June about this new advertising opportunity.
“I was not interested in putting our logo on trash,” he said. “So I declined, and we moved on.”
Others jumped at the chance, most prominently the Northeast Philadelphia car dealership Barbera on the Boulevard. Hundreds of downtown trash cans were plastered with large, yellow type: “300 Jeeps Cheap!”
Wingert thought the city could do better.
“This cheapens public space,” he said. “Take something people walk by every day, and scream ‘cheap!’ ”
The Barbera ads also got pushback on social media, especially Instagram.
“They suck,” wrote midwestexpat. “I make it a point to never buy from companies who have obnoxious advertising.”
“Every time I see a tourist looking at them questioningly, it infuriates me,” wrote mrerischut. “I cannot express how much I hate these things.”
Others were more temperate, seeing the objections to public advertising as a first-world problem.
“Each street is littered with trash and Philadelphians are fine walking by garbage everywhere. But advertising … that’s where we draw the line,” wrote eljefe127.
“I mean they’re hideous, but how is it different than sponsorships of public spaces, like in Dilworth Park? Or wrapped buses?” wrote honesdaler.
An idea is born
As an advertiser in command of a relatively modest budget, Wingert at City Fitness saw a way he might be able to usurp the Barbera ads with art.
Wingert used $10,000 and change to buy a month of advertising space on 18 trash cans. Then he partnered with Brendan Lowry and his Rory agency to find and pay artists who would submit work, and Conrad Benner to promote the campaign on his popular StreetsDept.com graffiti blog.
The artists, who were paid, submitted paintings, photography, illustration, and digital art. After Green City and Philadelphia officials approved the images, they were printed on vinyl wraps and applied to the trash cans.
City Fitness did not dictate what kind of imagery was to be used, nor was Wingert involved with the selection process. As long as it didn’t cross any lines of offense, it was up to the artists what they wanted to do.
Perhaps the most eye-catching image is a cartoon illustration by Marisa Velázquez-Rivas of a young woman “of color” (her race seems intentionally vague) standing on top of City Hall in place of William Penn. With flowers woven into her hair and her hand outstretched — just like Penn’s — she offers a rose. She wears a black cropped hoodie printed with the words “You Belong.”
“A lot of her work speaks to the current time – social justice issues, equality,” said Lowry of Velázquez-Rivas. “She just recently started sharing her work on Instagram. It’s happening quickly.”
One of the more mysterious images in the trash can campaign is “Blue Skins” by Santiago Galeas. His painting of disembodied blue hands fingering a branch of tree leaves does not easily reveal its meaning.
The image is actually a heavily cropped version of an entire figurative portrait. Galeas is a realist portrait painter who trained in traditional methods at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Recently his work has focused on people in the LGBTQ community.
In the spirit of Trashcan Takeover, he considered how his work might be read on public trash cans, and cropped to ameliorate the consequences.
“For the particular population I’m working with – queer and usually people of color – I want to be really careful about where they’re going,” said Galeas. “Our trash cans should be beautiful, but also I should be aware of what I’m putting on there.”
The original intent of Trashcan Takeover was to present the artists’ images accompanied by no explanations. Lowry and Wingert did not want the artwork to be tainted by a whiff of advertising. They learned that, legally, they can’t do that: The city insists that any messaging on public street furniture be attributed to someone or some thing.
Both the name of Lowry’s company, Rory, and City Fitness are identified in small letters on the sides of each trashcan.
@TrashcanTakeover debuted on Monday. In 24 hours, it had more than 1,000 people following the Instagram account.
A challenge to advertisers
“Yes, City Fitness is funding it and will get some brand recognition out of it,” said Lowry. “But City Fitness’ entire marketing model over the past few years has been about building community, and this is a way to do that.”
Trashcan Takeover is a reaction to other, more aggressive advertising campaigns that some regard as obnoxious. It gives local artists a platform, and beautifies the cityscape. It may also realize a return on investment for City Fitness.
The chain of gyms is in the business of selling memberships. To be successful, customers need to work out regularly and renew their membership every year. City Fitness uses a network of impressions via social media, urban consciousness, and word of mouth to attract attention to itself. It’s not trying to sell a car, but a lifestyle.
“If we believe we’re opening a business that will improve the lives of people that are using it, we shouldn’t be shoving our message down their throats at their subway platforms and bus stations,” said Wingert.
Wingert said the $10,000 he spent putting artwork on trash cans for a month may not translate into new gym memberships, directly. He means it to be a call for advertisers to use the urban landscape responsibly, rather than as a soapbox.
“This is an advertiser challenging other advertisers to do better,” he said. “Comcast, Aramark, IBX — we’d love to see them step up and follow our lead.”