The view is breathtaking. It’s nighttime in New York City: buildings are lit and sparkling, brightening the clear, purple-hued sky and reflecting in the otherwise dark water. On the right, a young man and woman are visible through a partitioned floor-to-ceiling window in a skyscraper they occupy. It is not the view of the city you’d expect to see: the United Nations building looms large in the foreground, and the man and women face the water, the city hidden mostly behind them.
The man and woman are distanced from the hustle and bustle, high above the traffic-clogged freeway. They are ambassadors of the city, ambassadors of the lifestyle the advertisement seeks to endorse. Dressed in cocktail attire, the woman holds a glass of a drink resembling champagne, while the man stands behind her, cradling her arm in his left hand. Although a subtle gesture, it seems possessive, almost as if he is pushing her up against the window. They seem to be gazing towards an address on the upper-left corner of the ad: “50-UNITED NATIONS-PLAZA-NEW YORK”.
The cityscape is the primary focus of this condominium ad, which fills the first two pages of an issue of The New York Times Magazine. Although viewers are unlikely to read too far into the nighttime setting, this decision was a conscious choice by the advertisers to endorse development and accentuate themes of power and control. Nighttime highlights the man-made beauty of the city—the lights of the structures—resulting from its development, while a daytime picture of the city would have featured more of the natural landscape.
In addition, the non-traditional view we see of the city makes the condominiums appear more important and dominant than they may look from a more traditional vantage point. Thus the visual components of the ad are designed to prime viewers to have a favorable impression of the condos and more broadly to endorse development, a view with which any prospective buyer would have to agree. The text of the ad is in sync with this purpose.
It doesn’t scream “condos,” in fact the first thing the viewer reads are the names of the design and development firms involved in the condominiums, which are placed above the description of the actual product. This is an appeal to status and a way to highlight the condominums’ style, further affirming the positive view of development the ad seeks to portray. In the nighttime setting, development dominates, as the lights of these structures overwhelm the sky that should be black.
The scene’s main source of lighting comes from the room the man and woman stand in, playing up the importance of these two figures. In the advertisement’s text on the upper left-hand corner, every letter is capitalized, connotating importance—the importance of the condos and their potential buyer. One line of text: “onsite model residences, immediate delivery, [website and phone number]”, conveys to viewers that should they be interested, their needs will immediately be taken care of so they can make one of the condominiums their own.
This attention to the needs of potential buyers is an appeal to their sense of self-importance and a welcome respite from a world in which waiting and frustration are realities. The sole people in this ad, the man and woman, are dressed elegantly in black and white cocktail attire, the woman adorned with simple jewelry. The postures they assume connotate dominance: of the man over the woman, and of the two of them over the city. They look out at what lies beneath them, both with an air of ambition, though in the man’s gaze we see a particular grasping for something.
Perhaps they are imagining what could be, or what is already, theirs. The lights of the city are reflected on the windows the man and women look out of from their position of privacy; while they project their dreams and ambitions out onto the city, the city is projected back onto them. In details below the address, the word “private” is repeated, emphasizing to potential buyers that they deserve special accomodations, appealing to those in the upper echelon of society who tend to associate privately.
The message is clear: these condominiums are a symbol of status and dominance for those who are important and private. The characters in the ad are portrayed as having the ideal position, as they have the ability to watch and influence the city around them from an exclusive vantage point. Everything in this advertisement revolves around aesthetic concerns: from the breathtaking view, to the way the man and women are dressed and posed, to the carefully worded text underscoring the visual components of the ad.
The fitness center is “state of the art”, the swimming pool “75-foot”—these descriptions vividly invite the viewer to imagine the extravagance of such amenities. Even the presentation of certain words, such as the number “88” and the spelling out of “one to seven” are visually appealing, calculated in the case of the latter detail to signal an abundance of space and time—abbreviations not needed—which is a luxury. In some sense, the creators of this ad tailor their appeal to a specific demographic of New York Times Magazine readers.
Condominiums are high-end, and Times readers are more likely than the general population to be able to afford such luxuries: fifty-six percent of readers are college graduates, and thirty-eight percent have an annual family income of at least $75,000 (Pew Research Center, 2012). Additionally, the man and woman in the advertisement look young, while thirty-two percent of New York Times readers are under thirty. However, there is still ambiguity surrounding the characters, and it is ultimately left up to viewers to determine the man and women’s backstory.
This vagueness is a purposeful tactic to widen the advertisement’s appeal: even those lacking the economic status required to purchase one of the condominiums can still envision themselves in the advertisement. Why would the advertisers care that others, and not just those who can afford the condos, identify with the ad? Another goal of the advertisers is to get other people—not just potential buyers—to see these condominiums as valuable. Value is subjective, and in order for these condominiums to reach the desired status that will ensure occupancy and drive up prices, many people must perceive them as valuable.
Thus, this ad is selling the condominiums’ worth to every reader of the New York Times Magazine, not just to eventual buyers. Although this ad is seemingly a simple one about luxury condominiums in New York City, in analyzing its component parts and unpacking their meanings we discover a lot more. The advertisers capture a strategic snapshot of New York City, one that places the couple and the condominiums out and above the the city and in their own private, luxurious world. The position they occupy, at the forefront of the city, above the clogged freeway, looking out at the water, is one of importance, power, and dominance.
The nighttime setting furthers this goal, as nighttime is when the natural beauty of the landscape is subordinated to the man-made beauty of the city—the lights emanating from buildings and other development. This primes viewers to associate development positively and connote privacy and luxury with the condominiums being advertised. The limited text that appears furthers these aims, as it signals an abundance of space and time, emphasizing to buyers a sense of their own importance and the life they could live in one of the properties.
With its promotion of development, luxury, privacy, and self-importance, the ad is an endorsement of wealth and financial achievement directed in part at an audience of young, ambitious, readers of The New York Times Magazine who either occupy or aspire to occupy the positions of the man and women in the advertisement. However, the man and woman were chosen not because they are celebreties. Rather they are young and beautiful, but replaceable, characters—an invitation for viewers to imagine themselves in the privileged position the couple occupy.
The possessive air of the man is an appeal to other men for whom dominance—over a woman, over a city, over others—is a signal of achievement and status. Although power, possession, luxury, and privacy are the undercurrents animating this advertisement, the central characters, the man and woman, are still veiled in ambiguity. This allows the advertisers to achieve their goal of reaching a broader audience, allowing viewers of all means to project their own story onto the characters and imagine themselves in such places.