When Times Square Smoked and Steamed

I have spent a great amount of time in Manhattan. In the ’90’s, I was in the city for 5 months “reengineering” Price Waterhouse’s marketing in the five boroughs. Later, I commuted there twice a month from Canada for over eleven years, working for Interbrand and DDB Worldwide over that time. And there were many other visits too. In fact, I have probably “lived” in Manhattan for four or five years.

Times Square was gentrifying when I started taking in its sights, yet still plenty gritty. I often triple-checked that my wallet was still on my person but it was nothing like Midnight Cowboy. I do not think of it as a square. It more resembles a small valley framed by towering, brightly-lit odes to commercialism and capitalism. For over one hundred years this has been the case. The difference now is the volume of messages. Times Square is analogous to marketing and advertising overall, too much clutter, it is tough for messages to break through.

Three signs did an admirable job of standing out in Times Square.

In 1996, a 60-foot Nissin Cup Noodle sign was installed. It was located prominently near the top of the One Times Square building, where the Times Square Ball drops on New Year’s Eve. I remember marvelling at it with all the other touristy-types. The steam rose from the cup for 10 years.

It was not an original idea. The first steamy sign appeared in 1933. It was the A&P coffee cup. Eight O’Clock Coffee was created by The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (later A&P) in 1859, in the latter company’s founding year. Douglas Leigh, originally from Alabama, was an outdoor ad man with gigantic ideas. Leigh had grown bored with neon signs, he wanted entertainment and action. So, he designed a 25-foot high coffee cup sign for the coffee brand that had an embedded steam machine. The image below is not the 1933 original, as no good photos exist, it is a later version.

Leigh is credited with another, more smokey sign for Camel cigarettes. The smoking guy changed many times over the life of the sign but the real smoke rings produced by a steam generator kept chugging away. Check out how Leigh was able to get two taglines on the sign. Painted is, A Real Cigarette. While, neon is over-layed reading, I’d Walk A Mile for A Camel.

Doug Leigh is the king of shock and awe signage in Manhattan. His Coca-Cola sign at Bryant Park gave an ever-changing weather forecast. Before emojis, it featured a house and employed pictures of sun, rain, snow, etc. to indicate coming weather. Cleverly, the tagline, “Thirst knows no season”, was used. In one of those fun bits of history, Leigh paid a tenant’s weekly laundry bills to stop her from hanging laundry on a clothesline in front of the sign!

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