When on my two-hour commute to and from school, I, along with thousands of other New Yorkers, am subjected to the numerous subway ads that decorate the trains. Among these advertisements are the visual creations from the advertising team of Casper, an e-commerce website that sells mail-order-mattresses. A few years ago, Casper, along with a design agency named Red Antler, launched a subway ad campaign with illustrations by artist Tomi Um. One of these illustrations is an incredibly detailed scene of a bustling New York City street. “Find More Hours in the Day” is written on a storefront, and upon further inspection, it can be seen that numerous clocks and hourglasses are hidden within the picture. This turns the viewing experience into a game for the commuter to take part in and transforms the illustration into much more than an advertisement. The image is interactive; it is a conversation starter, and for this reason, I find the Casper subway ads to be an interesting form of public art.
When one thinks of public art, an advertisement may not be the first thing to come to mind. From my experience, people tend to associate art with being anti-establishment and berate artists who pursue careers in advertising for being sell-outs. I, however, disagree with these notions. Casper subway ads are definitely art. The illustrations took time, effort, and thought to be created. There is a purpose behind each stylistic choice, and the illustrations evoke reactions from viewers.
The Casper ads are superb from both marketing and artistic points of view. From an advertising standpoint, the illustrations are incredibly effective in imprinting the Casper brand into the minds of the viewers long after they leave the train. Because the advertisement is so interactive and engaging, commuters spend more time looking at it and remember the brand. The ads also prove to be impressive from an artistic standpoint. The amount of detail in the “Find More Hours in the Day” illustration is stunning. With so many different characters interacting with each other and so many different situations happening at once, one cannot absorb the entirety of the image from a simple glance. This is clever for a subway ad, since it is able to occupy and captivate commuters who would otherwise have very little to do while the train is moving. Furthermore, I appreciate the stylistic choice to keep the illustration monochromatic. This subtle color choice contrasts with the exciting nature of the image. If the illustration used a full range of color, the image would possibly seem too busy and overwhelming to the viewer. These artistic decisions reveal that Tomi Um, along with the Red Antler advertising agency, definitely took into consideration the type of setting that these illustrations would be displayed in and the type of audience that would be viewing them. Considerations such as these are important when making art and are a major part of curatorship.
Casper’s subway ad campaign shows that art is everywhere and that art is able to serve multiple purposes. Not only do Tomi Um’s pictures advertise a mattress company, but they also engage New Yorkers on their commute. The lighthearted illustrations are a pleasant addition to any commuter’s morning routine. Through these advertisements, Casper has successfully combined the two different realms of commercialism and art to produce a charming subway ride for all, exemplifying one of the many uses for public art.