Breakout of the Billboards by Sheza Naqi

Breakout of the Billboards by Sheza Naqi

Visual Overload – Billboard Advertisements in New York’s Times Square (Lefkowitz 2007)

Jay David Bolter’s chapter, “The Breakout of the Visual” from his book, Writing Space: Computers, Hyptertext, and the Remediation of Print discusses the idea that today’s late age of print is really a visual age rather than a linguistic one. He asserts that we are living in a culture over-run with visual. From highway billboards to graphic texts, to flash-based web pages, our society consumes information largely through visual means. Advertising is one of the big winners in this cultural transition, considering that the number of ads that we are exposed to has jumped dramatically: from 500 a day in the 1970s to 5000 a day in 2009 (Johnson 2009). The success of advertising today is an excellent example of the breakout of the visual.

Through the visual, advertisers are able to deliver their message more clearly than ever before. In his chapter, Bolter discusses ekphrasis, a technique traditionally used to convey a visual message through prose. However, he recognizes its redundancy in today’s society by stating that, “as we have seen in digital media and even in print, we get a reverse ekphrasis in which images are given the task of explaining words” (Bolter 2001, pp. 56). Thus, advertisers now use the visual to paint the very picture that words could only describe. Ads not only make the claim that the product will make you wrinkle-free, your house cleaner or your social life more exciting – they show you that it already has for someone just like you. The saying, “a picture is worth a 1000 words” is quite apt when it comes to what advertisements today are able to convey through such visual messages.

But gone is the golden age of television when, “an ad on one of the big three networks could reach 70 percent of the viewing audience” (Johnson 2009).  Instead, advertisers today have to contend with the fact that their consumers can fast forward through their visual stimuli and miss the message entirely. Caitlin A. Johnson, writer for CBS News, wrote an article describing the new reality for viewers, given this power: “The viewing audience became not only scattered and fractured but in control ” (Johnson 2009). Her observation is extremely astute in connection with Bolter’s critique of how text and the visual have negotiated for control in the traditional spaces of reading and writing over time. “Control is not just a matter of ratio of images to texts, but of the way in which text gathers around the image and supervises its reading” (Bolter 2001, pp. 49). Visuals dominated medieval illuminations, but lost the battle for control with the printed book as text took control of the page and graphics came to be used textually. However, as digital media has emerged, so too has the use of the visual to supervise the reading and convey the message. The visual once again dominates reading spaces, especially on the World Wide Web and in the world of advertising.

Even though a viewer may be able to fast-forward through 2 minutes of commercials they are still inundated with visual ads on a daily basis. Advertisers have had to change their techniques with the times and take their message to the viewer; and with the digital age, multiple mediums exist for them to effectively deliver this message. “Marketers have found a way to use parking stripes, postage stamps and floors, even buses and buildings, like a target ad which practically engulfs an entire New York city block” (Johnson 2009). The visual jumps out at you when waiting in line for your morning coffee, with the newly installed LCD menu screens at Tim Hortons. When you take the bus to school, the public transit has built-in TV screens in front of your seat so that you can get the weather, headline news and a few important messages from sponsors before it’s even 9 a.m. These TVs have no sound, but it is not required since we are now so used to “reading” the message delivered visually.

Bolter discusses the new spaces of reading and writing throughout his book and identifies the window as the defining feature of the Graphic User Interface (Bolter 2001, pp. 67). “Like perspective painting, which offers the user a window onto a world, each GUI window also contains a world – it may be a world of text, a graphic image in two or three dimensions, or a live video feed” (Bolter 2001, pp. 68). A prime example of how advertisers have taken this digital space of reading and writing and made it their own can be found in New York City’s Times Square. The two buildings on Times Square have 11 spaces for digital signage and the overall annual advertising business was estimated to be worth $69 million in 2005 (Digital Signage 2005). The target market is the 29 million American tweens (ages 8 to 14) who had the purchasing power of approximately $38 billion in 2004 (Kennedy 2004). And the best way for the advertiser to deliver their message to this net-generation of consumer is through the visual. As Kress points out in his article on visual modes of representation, “Representation and communication are motivated by the social; its effects are outcomes of the economic and the political. To think or act otherwise is to follow phantoms” (Kress 2004, pp. 6).



Bolter, Jay D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Digital Signage. (2005, May 9). Times Square Advertising Business Annual Estimate. Web Pavement. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from

Kennedy, David G. (2004, April 1). Coming of Age in Consumerdom. Advertising Age. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from

Kress, Gunther. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), pp. 5-22.

Lefkowitz, Lester. (2007). Visual overload … adverts in New York’s Times Square. Corbis. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from

Johnson, Caitlin A. (2009, February 11). Cutting Through Advertising Clutter. CBS News. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from

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3 Responses to Breakout of the Billboards by Sheza Naqi

  1. Sheila says:

    Sheza – great analysis – your graphic reminds me of the information overload, overstimulation of Tokyo – and it really made no difference that I was in a japanese speaking country – the ubiquitous ads were the same as Canada or Times Square…Your comments about the control consumers have over what ads they watch struck me – while actually being completely immersed in a sea of ads… momentary control really.

  2. Deborah S says:

    I really enjoyed your commentary. As you noted, the visual is everywhere. It used to be that websites only contained ads at the side of the page, but there is certainly a trend toward more advertising. In addition to YouTube videos which feature ads at the bottom of each clip, I have also noted news bites that I watch on the Internet contain commercials before the clip begins. I have also noticed the streaming of news channels (without sound) at many airport gates, and my dentist recently installed TVs in each examination room for my viewing pleasure. Perhaps it is meant to be a distraction as I am getting my teeth cleaned or a tooth filled?


  3. Your point that we can watch news or weather and “read the message visually” really struck me. I have done this before! But of course, never thought of it this way. It also got me thinking about good advertising campaigns or branding techniques. The ones that really stick tend to be visually strong. For example, the Nike swish is known world wide. Or, how about the golden arches of McDonalds. McDonalds also makes me think that sound, as well as visuals, often has more impact than text. Most of us have hummed at least once..,”ba da ba ba baaa…I’m lovin’ it.”

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