Consumerism in the Linguistic Landscape

Times Square is truly a name known by every American, it is synonymous with New York City itself. To some it symbolizes the glamor and prosperity of America, to others it is a filthy, overcrowded tourist trap, some see it as a lucrative business opportunity, while others see it as symbolic of everything wrong with New York City. All of these sentiments can be observed in Times Square’s very unique linguistic landscape. Much of the linguistic landscape is characterized by being some form of advertising, with the most prominent feature being Time Square’s iconic billboards. Massive corporations from all around the world are willing to shell out thousands every single day just to display a billboard in the historic neighborhood. But what makes the linguistic landscape within the boundaries of West 42nd Street, West 47th Street, 7th Avenue, and Broadway, unlike any other linguistic landscape in the world? It can be explained by the sheer amount of eyes that lay witness to the billboards daily.

Times Square’s famous reputation is not just for show, on a typical day, over 350 thousand pedestrians traverse the tourist capital of our city, and that’s not even mentioning all the cars. This high traffic is the reason that Times Square’s linguistic landscape is the way it is. The sheer amount of people observing the linguistic landscape makes it a highly valuable commodity in of itself, a visual real estate market of sorts. Times Square is the tourist capital of New York; advertisers are only able to spend exorbitant amounts of money because tourists in Times Square spend even more in return, 47.9 billion dollars a year to be exact. Tourists in Times Square are spending money in amounts Times Square that most New Yorkers couldn’t even dream of, and advertisers know this. Advertisers utilize every available surface to expose tourists to as much language and media as humanly possible. The most apparent type of advertising is the large electronic billboards on the sides of each skyscraper. 

For example, here is a building with a large curved display, along with many smaller electronic displays below. This particular billboard is an advertisement for Chase Bank and is designed with the sole intention of drawing your attention to this building, which happens to be a Chase building as well. The smaller Steve Madden displays are also designed with similar intentions in mind. A similar example is a more traditional billboard that advertises the latest addition to the Godzilla and Kong franchises. The imagery on the billboard is an eye-catching display of the cinematic grandeur of the film. The text of the billboard utilizes a thematic font to convey a sense of excitement. It also uses large, bold text to grab your attention and effectively convey information about the film. Another obvious example is this large screen advertising the children’s franchise, Dora the Explorer. It has a large colorful logo displaying the name Dora, as well as a large image of the recognizable character, Swiper the Fox. The common theme between all these displays is that they are high up on the side of buildings, very large, and they all boast eye-catching visuals. These displays show flashy animations with bright colors, all expertly designed by top corporate marketers. 

An adjacent aspect of the linguistic landscape to large billboards is the numerous storefront signs. Shops and restaurants are a major source of revenue in any tourist area, and this significance is apparent from just looking at their signs. When presented with pictures of two identical chain stores, one being a Lids from Times Square and the other being from an average version of that chain, even a monkey could tell which one is designed to attract attention. Store signs in Times Square are abnormally large and spotted with LEDs that flash in an alternating pattern. Many even utilize bright neon lights and many other extravagant attention-grabbing techniques to give them an edge over the competition.

Furthermore, it’s not just the side of buildings that companies fight for. Many will also pay to advertise on a lamp post banner or even on the side of a trash can. A small Orange banner advertising an Alicia Keys show is not a unique presence in Times Square. Neither is the bright red Michael Jackson poster, displaying his iconic “gravity-defying tilt move” and the names of his hit songs in bold font. Although these advertisements may not be positioned in the ideal position, nor are they colossal, they are cleverly designed to effectively communicate information and create intrigue for all who lay their eyes on them. Advertisers utilize every available square inch of space to add to the linguistic landscape, and generally, it is created and designed with the sole function of selling a product. Nearly everything you see and read in Times Square is designed by a company with the sole purpose of making you spend money and this linguistic landscape is a result of how language has affected culture in this area. 

On paper, the high-traffic, thriving commercial district is a place of joy and wonder, why else would so many spend so much of their precious time and money here? To many, especially tourists, the extremity displayed in Times Square is not only visually awe-inspiring but also a symbol of American prosperity. To those who have never experienced New York City, Times Square is generally one of their first exposures. To the majority of tourists, New York City, and especially Times Square represents the antithesis of their small town. The bustling crowd, towering skyscrapers, as well as the sprawling advertising, and flashy signs in the linguistic landscape, all represent the vast growth and progress that America has made in a way that is not generally apparent in their small towns. 

However, many native New Yorkers claim that this apparent linguistic landscape is a dystopian symbol of capitalism, misallocation of resources, and consumerism. During the heat waves of July 2023, Mayor Eric Adams urged citizens to turn off their ACs or keep them on the lowest setting possible, with the intended purpose of saving energy. While an admirable request on the surface, many New Yorkers felt alarmed when asked to endure heat waves without AC while all the signs in Time Squares run like clockwork. After the 2021 heatwaves, this situation felt like deja vu to many. Many view Times Square as a soulless cog in the capitalist machine, represented by the mascots and countless amounts of people trying to sell you things. New York Times writer, Eve Peyser characterized the area as a “depraved tourist trap”. While the flashy electronic billboards are not the root of all evil, they certainly don’t help Times Square’s case when appealing to the average New Yorker. The amount of space being dedicated to consumerism and selling you products leaves a sour aftertaste in your mouth once the awe wears off. To walk through Times Square is to be bombarded by advertisements designed by people who want to take your money. The linguistic landscape of Times Square serves as a microcosm of the larger cultural and economic forces at play in modern American society. On one hand, it represents the epitome of capitalistic enterprise, consumerism, and corporate influence via an overwhelming spectacle designed to dazzle and entice consumers to spend money. The barrage of advertisements, from the towering electronic billboards to the storefront signs and even humble lamp post banners, creates an atmosphere of inescapable commercialism. 

Ultimately, the clashing perspectives on Times Square’s linguistic landscape highlight the ongoing tensions between unchecked capitalism and sustainable resource allocation, as well as the desire for commercial growth versus concerns over excessive consumerism. As a uniquely dense nexus of language used primarily for advertising and commercial purposes, Times Square captures these complex dynamics in a single neighborhood.

Additional Photographs