Apple opened its new Michigan Avenue location Oct. 20. The roof of the store — sleek and curved gray — was set to carry a white Apple logo in its center, resembling the iconic MacBook laptop, but less than an hour after placement June 22, the sticker was rolled up and removed without explanation. Still, the architecture’s resemblance to the popular product hasn’t gone unnoticed by Chicago residents.
Besides its clever architecture, something more is out of place with Apple’s new downtown location: the company is calling it a “town square” instead of a store.
It’s clear the Apple store’s product-replica appearance and commercial intentions, in combination with the store’s incompatible “town square” title, attempts to remove the boundary between public space and commercial space. However, the major technology corporation lacks transparency in doing so.
Under the veneer of creating accessible social spaces and fostering “urban connections within the city” lies its core message: Buy our products.
Had Apple branded its newest store as a “tech town square,” replete with free Wi-Fi and accessible chargers for its devices, the decision to socialize its establishment would have been less suspicious. But in declaring itself as a wholly social atmosphere, as if apart from private ownership, Apple is purposefully obscuring its commercial intentions.
Apple executive Tim Cook said about the new town squares, “Apple retail has always been about more than selling. It’s about learning, inspiring and connecting with people.”
This is reflected in the new Michigan Avenue location’s hosting of “The Chicago Series” — a month long series of events promoting creativity and community involvement in the city.
But where can the line be drawn between marketing strategy and community engagement? When Apple stores draw people into its locations, is it a sincere attempt to foster urban connection or to increase profit?
The fact remains that Apple’s “town square” functions in and of itself as a 20,000-square-foot advertisement — a fact that would have been more easily seen had the roof kept its logo — becoming yet another artifact in a sea of public advertisement across Chicago.
Many major cities of the world today are plastered in advertisement — Tokyo and New York City offer examples. While it’s only obvious marketing to advertise in public, where those advertisements can be viewed, it’s manipulative — even encroaching — to encourage the public to socialize within a branded atmosphere — pressuring them with an endless stream of trademarked messages.
In retaliation, some cities have gone so far as to ban outdoor advertisements. In 2007, São Paulo’s governor called outdoor advertising “visual pollution” and removed 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized storefront advertisements. This soon became a global trend, with Bristol, United Kingdom, Tehran, Iran and Chennai, India following. Several U.S. states — Vermont, Maine, Hawaii and Alaska — are all billboard-free. Some of these international cities, such as Tehran, have even replaced outdoor advertisement with artwork. And New York City residents have made similar efforts with No Ad, an app which imagines what the city might look like without its technicolor “BUY ME” banners — showcasing artwork instead.
Though the line may sometimes blur between artwork and advertising — many consider classic Coca Cola signs or some film posters works of art — Chicago should be wary of the unchecked abundance and growth of pernicious promotional material within its city limits.
With the new Apple store, current construction of a Wrigleyville Starbucks complex and familiar city locations branded by private companies — Guaranteed Rate Field, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) Theatre, or even what was formerly the Sears Tower — the city has already shown a trend toward allowing the branding of its social arenas.
The abundance of outdoor advertisements need not damage the city. In fact, the branded public scenes of Tokyo and NYC’s Times Square are well-known to attract tourists and stimulate local economies. But when corporate giants such as Apple begin manipulating the public by disguising marketing tactics as community engagement, we must be critical of their place in our cities. We must demand transparency in their marketing.
As we go about the city, these hidden messages impact the actions we take, where we choose to spend our time and who we choose to spend it with. If large corporations continue to act deceptively, the responsibility falls upon the public to decide which of these messages is worth listening to or enjoying as public artwork.