Hello Piccadilly: A short history of the world's most famous billboard

 
Elliott Haworth
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It's lights out for Piccadilly: 100 years of patchwork billboards are being replaced by the biggest screen in western Europe (Source: David Tait/Ocean Outdoor)

Earlier this year the lights at Piccadilly Circus were switched off for upgrades. The blackout was one of only a handful of occasions in its 100-year history that the hotchpotch of billboards had been intentionally switched off during peacetime. This morning, the new screen, the biggest in Europe, was turned back on.

Tim Bleakley, chief executive of Ocean Outdoor, the agency which organises the advertising on the board, understood the magnitude of altering a landmark. “It has this magnetism around it, I’d argue it’s the most famous advertising in the world,” he says. “Piccadilly’s iconism is linked to its longevity. The board has evolved not just as London has; it’s been there as the world has evolved around it.”

Supplanting something as significant as the advertising at Piccadilly Circus, albeit temporarily, was an unenviable task. The last time all the lights were out for any sustained period was from 1939 to 1949, when Churchill ordered the blackout to muddle the logistics of the Nazi bombing raids blitzing the city. Since then, other than the charity campaigns London Lights Out and Earth Day, the display has barely jittered.

Vasiliki Arvaniti, portfolio manager at Land Securities, which has owned the Piccadilly Circus site since the seventies, said that the lights would be off for approximately nine months. “What we’re doing is quite significant work, we have to take down the existing six screens, and the structures which hold them and replace it with a whole new structure, which is why it’s taking so long. It’s never been done to this scale before.”

New tech

The new curved, ultra-high definition 4K resolution screen aims to futureproof the space, while retaining the familiar patchwork aesthetic. The screen which has been installed – one of the biggest in the world – covers some 790 square metres, making it bigger than a full-sized tennis court (670 square metres). It is also be one of the most technically advanced in the world, offering live video streaming, lifestyle updates such as weather and sports results, and real-time social media feeds, ensuring the space stays at the forefront of innovation, while offering new opportunities for brands and advertisers.

One such innovation is localised wifi which, when combined with the ability to update the brand message in real time, provides the capability to alter adverts based on consumers within the area. “It’s fast,” says Bleakley. “Coca-Cola, for example, can log on at any given moment, see a large group of Spanish tourists and change the copy of the ad from ‘hello,’ to ‘buenos dias.’ There will be car recognition, so, if it’s a car brand advertising, it can serve ads based on the vehicles passing by. For those brands, it’s an exclusive tech club. They’ll be members of a world first.”

(Click or tap on the images to see them in full screen)

Heritage

Of course, replacing the lights with a giant screen risked losing the patchwork that has adorned the site for so long – and made it the landmark we know today. Graham Hinton, chairman of the History of Advertising Trust, says that, while an upgrade is inevitable, he heeds a warning. “Like any property that the public warms to, has affection for and knows well, to some extent, you tamper with it at your own risk. It’s achieved iconic status, and I think the patchwork is really important to it. If you look at the first pictures, it hasn’t changed – it’s always been that way. At what point does a medium lose its appeal because you adapt it to take advantage of modern technology?”

Retaining a sense of history was on the lips of everyone involved in the project, said Arvaniti. “We’ve worked very closely with Westminster City Council to arrive at a proposal, she says. “What we will deliver is change that makes a big enough difference to ensure that the site continues to lead the way in terms of out of home advertising, while not changing its essence and heritage.”

The way they hoped to achieve this is through segmentation of the giant screen – replacing the patchwork, while retaining its spirit. The screen will be split into six sections ordinarily, periodically rotating brands in 30 minute loops, whereafter one brand will take full control of the entire screen.

Special

But what makes it so special? Landmarks tend to be buildings or icons – red phoneboxes and Buckingham Palace. It is, after all, just a board of adverts.

A succinct answer that rings true today came in 1926. CJ Lytle, general manager of the Borough Billposting Company, wrote in Modern Advertising: “it is not too much to say the Piccadilly attracts thousands of sightseers every night for the avowed purpose of witnessing for themselves the mechanical wonders of the flashing signs. And they are all absorbing the commercial messages that are signalled to them.”

Clearly, the board has grown up since then, but its appeal is undimmed. “It’s a very magical thing to go and see,” says Hinton. “The concentration and brightness of the images; the location in itself. Piccadilly is a pretty extraordinary place in London. It’s the hub of the West End, bringing everything together with these extraordinary brands and messages occupying the biggest space in the most exciting way. It sort of all works together.”

The Circus is known the world over – monumental as a tourist attraction, irreplacable as an advertising behemoth – reaching over 100m consumers per year, and setting a global standard in out-of-home. “It’s always been the centre of the change in the out of home medium,” says Bleakley. “It was the first site to be illuminated, the first to have neon, the first to be replaced with digital LED. It’s evolved as the medium has evolved, and will continue to do so.”

History

At present, six screens advertise brands at Piccadilly. The most famous, Coca-Cola, has held a permanent residency on the board for 62 years, and will continue to do so, according to Aedamar Howlett, marketing director of Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland. “There are only a handful of advertising spaces in the world that are as iconic and unique as the Piccadilly Lights,” he said.

Despite its obvious staying power, Coca-Cola’s presence is a fairly recent addition to the boards’ history. Illuminated lettering attached to the facades of prominent buildings appears to have started in 1890 – although advertisers had filled the space with posters and static ads for some time. The first permanent, illuminated electrical advertisement from Perrier, using incandescent bulbs, appeared in 1908. It wasn’t until 1923, that, like Dylan, Piccadilly went fully electric, with neon lights and moving signs replacing the original incarnation.

It’s hard to imagine a brand like Bovril advertising on Piccadilly now, but the meat extract producer had the first neon sign to grace the famous facade. The neon lights, utilised by over 50 brands across several decades, from Cinzano to Guinness; Kodak to McDonald’s, remained for some decades, upgraded at the pace technology allowed. The last neon light, owned by Sanyo, was removed in 2011 following a request to replace it with a more modern LED screen before the 2012 Olympics.

“We’re replacing very cumbersome technology of varying age and quality,” says Bleakley. “Every screen is different and some will be outdated soon; this is a way of creating uniformity when we have the chance.”

It’s not well known, but on two occasions in its life, the Piccadilly Lights have faced opposition that brought their future into question.

Following a number of complaints from architects, in 1900 the London County Council made byelaws “prohibiting the exhibition of flash lights... so as to be visible from any street and to cause danger to the traffic therein.” The complainants insisted they were a “disfigurement to the Metropolis and a nuisance.” The council had wanted to impose a complete prohibition, which would have put a stop to all intermittently illuminated advertising in London. But Adland fought back, and won.

The second was a proposition by one Lord Holford in 1962. He wanted to redevelop the area, replacing the buildings upon which the lights are fixed with three octagonal towers and an elevated pedestrian concourse linking the buildings around the perimeter of the Circus. It became known as The Holford Plan, spawning the reactionary short film, “Goodbye, Piccadilly.”

Thankfully – for the sake of longevity, and developing an icon – neither plan was ever seen through. And today, when works were completed, we said, “Hello Piccadilly” and welcomed it to the future.

• 1908 First permanent electrical advertisement, using incandescent bulbs, is installed by Perrier.

• 1923 Within 15 years, electric billboards dominate the Monico Cafe and London Pavilion 

• 1965 The lights are switched off as a mark of respect during Churchill’s funeral.

• 1986 Advertising is removed from London Pavilion as part of renovations.

• 1997 The lights are switched off for the funeral of the Princess of Wales.

• 2002 Yoko Ono pays to display John Lennon lyrics: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace,” following the 9/11 attacks.

• 2007 Paul Atherton’s short film “The Ballet of Change,” exploring the history of the Circus, premieres on Coca-Cola’s LED ad space.

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