Talking Billboards Installed in Chinatown

Looking to reach 100,000 people in one day in downtown D.C.? For a cool $45,000 you can splash a video ad complete with audio across the three new video billboards recently installed in Chinatown. If a California advertising company called PharrisMedia wins approval, the screens may be joined by new billboards, sidewalk signs, and event banners hoping to catch the eyes of thousands of drivers and pedestrians.

The ad below captures the excitement of advertising at the busiest intersection at the heart of the nation’s “8th largest metropolitan area.”

Gallery Place AdsThe graphic to the left shows the proposed location for the banners and other ads on the Gallery Place Building According PharrisMedia’s circulation analysis, some 28,800 pedestrians and 71,200 vehicle passengers pass the corner each day. The screens will operate for 22 hours each day 365 days a year, showing three advertisers ads each day with 10% of the time filled with public service announcements. The additional billboards and signs, which will decorate the Gallery Place building on both H Street and 7th Street, will join a host of existing signs including the Verizon Center’s video screen (also with audio) and the cinema’s digital screen showing movie times.

If more talking billboards pop up around town I will attempt to construct a pedestrian density threshold for the uniquely pedestrian-oriented advertising medium. Combined with a new scoreboard inside and WMATA’s rotating postmodern LED Displays, it has truly become a neighborhood of simulacra and simulation.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I wrote Jack Evans about this, saying that I didn’t see why we had to pathetically ape Times Square. His response was underwhelming:

    “[M]uch of downtown is modern and, as such, I don’t think the billboards are out of place there.

    I welcome the transformation of the Penn Quarter neighborhood. It wasn’t too long ago that Chinatown was run down and dangerous. Now, it’s a vibrant, living downtown with commercial, retail and residential uses. There are eyes on the street 24/7. It’s not perfect and never will be but I would agree it’s much improved.

    Regarding quality of life issues, my staff and I have been working to resolve complaints reported to us, mostly from residents, regarding noise and how the signage may be blocking light and sun.”

    The conflation of modernity and economic revitalization with obnoxious advertising is downright insulting. There’s no call for these monstrosities. The fact that they play sound is especially galling. Can’t I wait for the bus in peace?

  2. They remind me somewhat of a scene from the movie Minority Report (also set in Washington), where people are assaulted by moving, talking billboards that recognize each person and address them by name by scanning their retinas. “Hello, Thomas Lee. Are you in the market for renter’s insurance? Nationwide can help …”

  3. um thats the reagan building not the convention center lol.

    those talking billboards are fortunately loud only right under them & in the metro escalator area. they play the same boring irritating cingular commercial over & over. those poor newspaper guys.

  4. Times Square keeps coming up as a reference to Chinatown. NYC isn’t the only place with a “lights district”. London has Piccadilly Circus, Tokyo has Shibuya and Shinjuku, and basically every other urban, world-class city has an intersection like this. DC is slowly becoming a true world-class city. Bright lights is not a cause of this, but probably a side-effect.

  5. Justin: Chinatown is hardly competing with those areas — getting a Bed Bath & Beyond does not immediately vault us into the ranks of the world’s foremost centers of commerce. Besides, those areas evolved in their own time and place. Would Times Square become what it did if it was starting today? I doubt it — our attitudes about advertising are very different, and the industry has changed. DC is showing up late to the party, desperately aping its betters. It’s pathetic.

    And Si: I have to disagree. I definitely heard those billboards from across the street, and was surprised by their volume.

  6. Tom: That’s exactly my point. It’s taking time, trying to stop or slow change makes it take indefinitely longer. Chinatown isn’t an international center of commerce. But DC is a capital city that is rapidly growing and transforming. In 5 years, NoMa and Near Southeast will be developed. In 10 years, Poplar Point and Anacostia. From then, who knows, but its happening quickly.

  7. I’m not arguing against development, I’m arguing that conflating it with gawdy outdoor advertising is silly. I just don’t understand why blaring commercial messages at the city’s shoppers is synonymous with economic development.

    I suspect that Evans and others just think it’s sort of cool. I also suspect that they don’t walk down that block as often as I do.

  8. Other than Times Square can anyone name another U.S. city with an intersection of insane billboards? I grew up in Chicago and lived for many years in San Francisco — neither of which have anything like this. And I think both are truly world class cities. And world class on their own merits not by aping other cities. That’s what second tier cities do: the Sacramentos, Dallases, Atlantas and San Joses of the world do. DC is better than that. We can have our own identity instead of “a small town’s idea of what a big city should feel like” — as Time magazine once said of Atlanta.

  9. The billboards are annoying mostly because they are both auditorily and visually intrusive. Rather than showing lame AT&T ads, the billboards would be more Washingtonian if they showed PSAs from local NGOs or daily clips of nonsense spewed daily on the Senate and House floors.

    Unfortunately, finding a patron willing to sponsor such interesting content is about as likely as District residents getting voting representation in the government they fund.

  10. “They remind me somewhat of a scene from the movie Minority Report”

    And a similar scene in “Back to the Future II.”

    Busy urban sidewalks are more than simple conduits for moving bodies from point A to point B. Busy urban sidewalks should be places where people linger, people-watch, chat, get some sun, and in general, hang out. William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl have documented in great detail how the most successful urban streets and civic spaces are designed to be hospitable for these purposes. Why should we allow our civic realm to be assaulted with blaring advertisements ? Why should we allow these obnoxious gadgets to debase our functioning public spaces? DC citizens are not proles to be browbeaten with invasive advertising demands 22 hours a day.

    Instead, we should be making our busiest streets more pedestrian friendly and more amenable for lingering, which will in turn boost popularity, civic value, sales for adjacent merchants, and property values for adjacent owners.

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