Shops, Cafés, The whole wealth of human knowledge…

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I once watched a video shot from a dashboard in Pyongyang, North Korea, as a car cruised aimlessly around the city.

It took a few moments before I realised what felt most unusual about what was otherwise a fairly unremarkable urban environment.

It was the complete absence of any advertisements. No illuminated signs hovering over public spaces. No roadside billboards. No ads on bus shelters or buses.

We are exposed to so many commercial messages that it is hard to absorb even a fraction of them – whether in the real world or on the screens in our living rooms and pockets.

Most of these messages are just background noise, barely noticeable at all until they are absent (like when air conditioning is suddenly switched off and you realise just how loud it was for the first time).

Standing out in this environment is not easy.

So it was brilliant when the British Library in St Pancras, London, put up a new billboard in the style of a sign that states in a list, “Shops; Cafe’s; The whole wealth of human knowledge, endeavour and experience to date; Events; Exhibitions.”

Inside the building another longer poster playfully described all the things visitors might do in the library in the name of research.

“If it happens in the library it’s research. Jotting down snippets of Sunderland history? Research. Working with a friend on the science of lichen? Research. Idling through the exhibition space? Research…”

It is clever twist on the hopelessly lazy and deathly dull “Shop. Eat. Drink” signs sitting outside seemingly every visitor destination across the country, no matter their original purpose.

“Enter this simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple, billboard for the British Library – ostensibly a list of the library’s features in which all the features are equal. But some are more equal than others. Its surgically steely third line lances the boil of backroom bean counters demanding expansion,” says Sanjiv Mistry of McCann London.

“And to achieve all that… using just words, makes it not just an apt ad for a library, but about as perfect a poster as I’ve ever seen.”

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette, Lancashire Post and other titles. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.
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