LeBron James and the Protocol of Display
In 2003 Meg Maguire, former president of the activist group Scenic America, testified before a U.S. congressional subcommittee that “425,000 billboards were located along federal aid highways and that the number was increasing by 6% annually. This means that any way you look at it there are between 731,000 – 885,000 billboards on America’s federal aid highways alone — not counting city streets, or state and country roads.”1 The Outdoor Advertising Association of America’s Web site reports that spending on billboards and other outdoor advertising has increased from $3.5 billion in 1995 to $6.3 billion in 2005, with an average annual growth of 6.5 percent, outpacing inflation. 2 These numbers mark the sprawl of advertising in public space and indicate that public life unfolds before the backdrop of constructed visual communication. That public life prominently involves visual media is no surprise; that there is a rapid and continual increase in static visual surfaces like billboards in a technologically dynamic age is more perplexing.
The growth and prominence of visual surface might demonstrate an expansion of the circulatory space of visual communication, creating new audiences for visual reproductions. Alternatively, this essay seeks to interrogate visual surfaces as something more than a location in a circulatory matrix, which all too often encourages an interpretive protocol predicated on what fills the surface. The “something more” is the function of surface itself, the fact that visual communication is materially manifest as a display in public space. Admittedly, this is a very specific mode of visual communication, but it is a mode defined by what Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and Elizabeth A. Povinelli call “the play of supplementarity that enframes and ruptures the enterprise of public recognition.”3 Before a public interrogates a visual image for its communicative message, it is first addressed by the image as communication; this primary moment of display performs a particular kind of labor that shapes a public’s understanding of the visual image itself and the social space in which publics encounter the image and others. The moment of display, then, requires a particular protocol of reading if we are to “foreground the social life of the form rather than reading social life off of it.”4 As visual images increasingly cover the facade of social space and public life, the utility of these surfaces of display must be examined not in terms of what might be said on them but, instead, in terms of what the preponderance of surfaces says about the publics that stand before the invitation of visual communication. To that end, the essay examines a Nike, Inc., advertisement campaign titled “Chamber of Fear,” which foregrounds the moment of display in ways that disclose the public-forming possibilities of visual surfaces as a distinctive mode of communication in the late-liberal public sphere.
In November 2004 Nike introduced its new advertising campaign featuring the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) young star LeBron James to the people of Singapore. Earlier in 2004 the campaign, featuring James and his basketball prowess in the settings of 1970s-era kung fu movies, caused offense in China for treating Asian culture in a campy manner, and the campaign was eventually removed from television broadcasts. Unperturbed, Nike began developing a unique strategy for transmitting “Chamber of Fear” that would locate controversy beyond the campaign’s visual content. Nike purchased a series of “transitshelter displays” from Clear Channel, an American communications powerhouse with worldwide stakes in everything from radio stations to entertainment venues. Instead of filling up these displays with a single graphic instance of the “Chamber of Fear” campaign, Nike decided to paste multiple copies of single-sheet posters within the larger poster space, blending advertising and graffiti into one display. The disparity in the reception of the “Chamber of Fear” campaign in China and Singapore indicates the difference between the communicative potential of the content and display of visual images, inviting further reflection on these two necessary and interrelated interpretive registers of visual surfaces. Thinking of images as “visual surfaces” produces a more accurate sense of the cultural and discursive potential of the visual realm because such a concept recognizes the inherently material nature of visual images that marks and is marked by a contingent experience in social space.
Given this preference for a sense of visual surface, the “Chamber of Fear” campaign becomes even more intriguing because of the involvement of the Clear Channel group, the world’s largest outdoor advertisement space provider. Clear Channel Outdoor details a stunning array of public signage opportunities in its 2007 media planning guide, including more than thirty distinct display options and a network of airports, train stations, and shopping malls with additional display space.5 The value of Clear Channel’s surfaces depends on two variables: the dimensions of the surface available for visual content and the social space in which Clear Channel displays the visual content. While Clear Channel seems well aware of both registers of value, the viewing publics likely are not. Upon encountering a visual image in public space, viewers pass a nearly imperceptible moment when the image itself is treated as distinct from the other surfaces of everyday life. The communicative force of visual surfaces depends on this moment and is born from this interplay between visual content and the moment of display.
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- House Committee on Small Business, Subcommittee on Rural Enterprises, Agriculture and Technology, Hearing on the Highway Beautification Act, 108th Cong., 1st sess., 2003, www.scenic .org/billboards/hba/testimony.
- Outdoor Advertising Association of America, “Outdoor Advertising Expenditures: 1970 – 2006,” www.oaaa.org/outdoor/facts/Historical_Expenditures.pdf (accessed July 14, 2007).
- Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transfiguration, Recognition,” Public Culture 15 (2003): 386.
- Gaonkar and Povinelli, “Technologies of Public Forms,” 387.
- Clear Channel Outdoor, “Media Planning Guide 2007” (n.p.: Clear Channel Outdoor, 2007).