Skywriting is the first gigantic advertising I remember: mile-high letters at 10,000 feet--telling me
to drink Pepsi. (That was impressive, but not as much as fake skywriting. I remember how
disappointed I was to learn that the marvellous "Surrender Dorothy" message in the sky above Oz
was special effects.) The most obnoxious big ad I have ever seen was the giant Camel cigarette
billboard on Times Square in New York. It featured a guy blowing smoke rings from 1941 to 1966.
(Not the same guy. He died.) I have not seen the newer eight-story cylindrical Nasdaq sign (with
8,200 separate panels run from a control room) that wraps around the Condé Nast Building at
Broadway and 43rd Street in New York, but I am prepared to be suitably offended by it.
(The most memorable American ads were, of course, the Burma Shave signs. Each one consisted of
five signs posted maybe 40 yards apart on God-forsaken stretches of desert road in the wide-open
spaces out west. Much like sky-writing, they compelled your attention. Their little epiphanies of
iambic tetrameter kept you awake waiting for the resolution:
A CHIN / WHERE BARBED WIRE
IS BOUND TO BE
A NO MA'AMS LAND
(I got so I could guess that last line pretty consistently!) The ads started in the 1920s and lasted until
the 60s. They weren't big ads-- just long ones, spread along a few hundreds yards of desolate road.)
Somewhere in the middle of all this is a newer technology that prints computer-generated images on
giant rolls of vinyl. You have seen the smaller format images on the backs of busses. From the
outside, the picture looks solid; from the inside, however, you can see out; this is especially helpful
if you are a driver trying to use the rear-view mirror. The larger format, however, also produces
"wallscapes," multi-story images that are turned out in sections on very large printers and then
joined at the seams when they are put up. Unlike hand-painted signs, which can take months to
create, wallscapes can be up in a few hours. Such wallscape advertising is common in Naples and,
strangely enough, I don't mind it, since it helps pay for a considerable amount of reconstruction of
the facades of historic buildings.
There is an old wheeze about a window-washer's job never being done on a skyscaper; that is, when
you finish, it's time to start over. That goes, as well, for restoring buildings in Naples. At any given
time, there are dozens of projects going on in the city to restore the facades of buildings. The jobs
range from mundane schools to historic churches to the San Carlo Theater (from 1737). Some of the
work is done to repair the ravages of time and some of it is to undo the earthquake damage of 1980.
Yet, there is so much to do, that the work is really never done.
The trick, however, is to make the work as invisible and as aesthetically pleasing as possible,
especially in spots frequented by great numbers of tourists. In the old, pre-wallscape days, you
simply put up scaffolding on the facade and draped anonymous green webbing down over the
outside of the entire rig in order to keep hammers and chunks of plaster from falling onto unwary
noggins below. Now, however, the finished product--the way the facade is going to look some
day--is printed onto giant sheets of vinyl and those sheets then become the barrier between the
outside world and workers scurrying about the scaffolding. You can ooh and aah at the picture and,
then, when the magic day comes, they drop the screen and your oohs and aahs are already in the
bank, so to speak. The whole screen is paid for by an advertiser who gets to put an outrageously
oversized spot in the middle of the vinyl facade.
The most noticeable wallscape ad in Naples is still up on the west side of the San Carlo theater
(bottom three photos). The make-believe facade looks good, and the ad in the middle changes
periodically. There was some speculation that the giant "walk" sign on the Coke ad would confuse
tourists; they would stare at the ad and cross the street without noticing that the real traffic
light said "Don't Walk." Dead pedestrians were at a minimum, however, since no one pays much
attention to those signs in Naples, anyway.