Wounded cranes: the need for a sense of humor

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.One of the mysteries of human behaviour which marketing and advertising often attempt to exploit is the power of symbols.With the Canadian economy still...

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

One of the mysteries of human behaviour which marketing and advertising often attempt to exploit is the power of symbols.

With the Canadian economy still battered – with job losses mounting and hope decreasing – it may be time for the selling industries to do the civic thing and apply their creative talents to relaunching one of the most visible symbols of our fiscal malaise

In downtown Toronto, stands an eight-storey elevator shaft. This was to be one more gleaming skyscraper, but the project was abandoned when the recession hit and the real estate market collapsed.

Trapping two awkwardly-still building cranes, this gray and gouged elevator shaft now represents dashed hope, spent financial testosterone, and persisting uncertainty.

With its strategic location in the financial district, we cannot expect the economy to regain confidence when, everyday, the gurus of Toronto’s Bay Street are confronted with such an overpowering reminder of past misjudgments and failed financing.

To kick-start the economy, we really need to do something to recast this concrete slab as a hopeful and dramatic symbol.

I suggest turning the whole thing into an advertising medium.

Imagine the creative possibilities of a four-sided, eight-storey billboard. Mediacom would love it. This would dwarf anything on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, and give advertisers the unmatchable panache of being in the centre of the money centre.

Thinking even bigger – which this scale lends itself to – the elevator shaft could become a platform for creating a neon plaza. Every world-class city has one. The Ginza in Tokyo. Piccadilly in London. Piazza Duomo in Milan. Times Square in New York. This could put Toronto on the neon map.

Covering the elevator stump in pulsing neon is an analogue for what advertising does best. Imperfections are airbrushed out. Grim reality is transformed into hope. The scar becomes sexy.

This is a bit glossy, a bit over the top. But let’s remember that a little hype is probably exactly what the stuck-in-neutral economy really needs.

If we take the notion of creating dreams even further, the site could become a video medium.

On a simple scale, this might mean painting the whole structure white and, like they did in the movie Cinema Paradiso, projecting movies on it.

This is Toronto, so the movies would be imax, the popcorn would be topped with real butter, and Dentyne could advertise before each feature.

The next logical enhancement from a video perspective is to go full Sony Jumbotron. We would need four like the one in the SkyDome – one to cover each side.

While no doubt an expensive proposition, think of how dislocating it would be to New Yorkers. Toronto could claim an aspect of media supremacy, giving the city one more reason for resisting the surrendering of media buying to the consolidators on Madison Avenue, and in Morris Plains, Cincinnati and Chicago.

Advertising in the 1990s seems to be about honesty, so it might be wrong to go for the easy cosmetic makeover. Maybe we need to use the talents of our artists to turn the still-born structure into a statement.

On this front, my suggestion would be to recommission the tower as the Hubris Hall of Fame. Once again, imagine on each side of the elevator shaft huge posters of people such as Robert Campeau, or the Edper Bronfmans, the Reichmann brothers or Alexander Godenov.

If the hubris concept is too negative, or too prone to litigation, then my final suggestion is to use the elevator shaft as a centre-support for suspending a huge high-tech tent.

This could serve as a public service kiosk for the neighboring banks, getting them out of the towers and onto the street.

Or, since it would probably happen anyway, the whole complex could be turned into a Movenpick Marche restaurant that would finally be big enough to eliminate even the longest of line-ups.

Then again, it may be that line-ups are a good thing and should not be tampered with. Disney loves lines.

The point is that the unfinished elevator haunts our civic psyche. What we desperately need is to transmute this incomplete elevator into a symbol which is totally disassociated with the concept of shaft.

As importantly, we also need to start having some fun again, to start taking ourselves a little less seriously. Any suggestions on either front would definitely be welcome.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultant to senior business executives.