Bucharest: All Branding: No Design

A piece of invective published last year in the second issue of Jug magazine

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On the face of a ten-story 1980s block inspired by the architecture of Pyongyang, abseilers risk their lives to raise a giant poster of Marilyn Monroe sipping the metal lip of a Coke bottle, or Alicia Keys perfecting her skin with a liniment from Givenchy, or Chris Pratt on a motorbike escaping the jaws of a cartoon dinosaur.

To a pedestrian, Bucharest is not a matrix of businesses, shops, factories and apartments, but a vast media space, undertaking a public execution on the cityscape. The capital’s landmarks are no more than rostra for marketing. The site of revolutionary insurgency – Piata Universitatii – now hosts an inflatable beer-can. For decades, the steps of the National Theatre were a graffiti-strewn meeting place – the prologue to an evening of boozing, protest, love or commerce.

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But now this stage hosts a backdrop of commercials, stealing its top step. Your rendezvous is branded by cheap airlines, credit cards, telephones and shopping malls that show films – in 4D. Where the seats move. Where water gets splashed in your face.

The ridges of offices are fringed with phone, energy, tax, banking, detergent brands – the only companies pocketing cash in a flat economy. Big business cuts a deal with landlords to hire space if they can sponsor the building. Meanwhile the fabric covers of construction sites are splayed with the name of a concrete firm, trimmed with that of the builder – each contractor using advertising to offset costs.

Bucharest’s apartments and houses have been in flux for over 70 years, moving from private ownership to state ownership to private clients of the state. In between slither the litigators, forcing residents out, or bringing former owners back into their old homes. Meanwhile the bailiffs pounce on the bankrupt, taking over their property and leaving it empty. Other landlords live in vain hope of a stupid Belgian or Danish investor appearing to buy their vacant 50 square-metre shack for half a million Euro.

These empty spaces become a hoarding for cheap posters for plays, concerts and festivals, which launch a guerrilla attack on orphaned space.

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Therefore every level of the city – the summit, the facade, the street – is a spot for sale.

But these ads are not choreographed in harmony with urban aesthetics – Bucharest is branded out of desperation, not design. Its public space hungry for commercialization, from anyone, to place anywhere, as though it were the sweater of a minor league baseball team facing liquidation.

Anyone can advertise – the one condition is that the commercial is not offensive. Those looking to sell soap or chocolate bars with a penis, vulva or anus will be disappointed, and forbidden are promotions on the benefits of pedophilia or the burning of Hungarian villages.

Yet no one cares if a child’s gaze is enraptured by erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey, a film encouraging young women to embark on abusive relationships with millionaires by legal contract.

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And if Bucharest could sell more of itself, it would. Last year [in 2014] when German communications company Deutsche Telekom launched in Romania, the capital was transformed into the colour magenta, its masterpieces of 19th and 20th century architecture bathed in a shade of bubblegum.

The firm stated: “Romania turns on magenta – fully embracing our universal brand belief that life is about sharing and being connected every time, everywhere”.

The city was connected. The city was shared. But with only one thing – a phone company campaign.

Meanwhile residents hope they can sell the space outside the balcony, obscuring their view and preventing the sun from penetrating their homes. Home-owners are willing to auction their light, so they can sit in the dark, gloating, knowing that multinationals have bought their heating for the winter.

If a lone resident refuses, she is ostracized by the block’s committee, and forced to commit an act of sabotage – to cut a hole in the hoarding outside his balcony and stare out from the chin of Dakota Johnson, or the wheel of a Mercedes, proud that she has made a stand, as she looks upon a city of traffic jams, paint-sniffing children, feral cats and other ads, staring back at her, reminding her how much money she could have made.

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Even if advertising does not steal the light from our apartments, it thieves our vision. I have a son. Four years old. He loves to ride the city buses. He loves to ride the Metro. But when he sits up in the bus and stares out of the window, often the glass is shrouded by a poster for a music festival or an aquatic park, and he screams, angry that he cannot see the city. And on the Metro. He turns around on the seat. To look into the tunnel. To see the lights as they whizz past. To catch the sight of a rat. But due to a poster on the windows of the train, he sees only sheer blackness. And he screams. “Where are the rats?” he shouts at the fellow travellers, trapped in blindness. “I want to see the rats!”

Advertising space dries up in magazines. TV spots become less efficacious. Media buyers remain suspicious of the Internet. So they go outdoor, direct to the consumer, transforming public space and public transport into publicity. If they could brand the sky they would. If they could brand the faces and legs of every pretty teenager, they would. It’s in their nature. They will push until every window, brick and slab of concrete is for sale at a discount. It’s up to the people to stop them – as individuals, groups or through their elected representatives.

Some tell me that Bucharest is so ugly – its miserable blocks and crumbling plaster can only be improved by advertising. But this does not cure the city. It is not a bandage to its wounds, soothing and resting the cut. It is as effective as wrapping a piece of paper around an injury, fixed by sticky tape. For sure the blood will seep through.

In the past, Michael Bird’s journalism specialised in retail advertising and brand strategy

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