There is much to dislike about living in Washington, D.C. The impossibly humid summers. The soulless downtown. The stultifying aura of official bureaucracy that seems to seep into every person, place, and thing. The condescension from denizens of every other major American city. The ubiquity of Politico.
And yet in six years in the Capital, I’ve also found plenty to appreciate. Spring in the city is unmatched. Washington lends itself well to long, meandering walks through a rich array of historical neighborhoods. The city is unique in ways both good and bad, which is another way of saying that it’s a city. Yet one of my favorite idiosyncrasies about our nation’s capital too frequently eludes notice: the bizarre ads in the city’s Metro stations and bus shelters, a strange and often amusing expression of Beltway id.
I’ll admit: strange ads on public transportation are not unique to Washington, or even the United States. But the ads plastering the clean concrete tunnels and glass walls of WMATA’s stations and shelters aren’t just weird for defying our expectations of public print advertising — they do so in ways that perfectly resonate with the city, and our expectations of it. Consider the very first ad to catch my attention, which I spotted at the Pentagon Metro stop sometime last year. It was an ad for some defense contractor or another (where else but in the bowels of the Pentagon would they even advertise?) and cheerily promised “cost-effective lethality.” The phrase was jarring. It was also perfectly attuned to American politics, as though the phrase were concocted by a young politico thinking “I’d like to kill people, but I’m on a budget.”
When they’re not parodies of political language, so many of the Metro’s advertisers reflect a dark tone appropriate for a dark time. Earlier this month, controversy erupted over an ad in the Clarnedon Metro stop baldly proclaiming “Go to hell Barack.” Meanwhile, all around the city, bus shelter ads starkly warn of an untrustworthy president condoning a nuclear Iran. This is the worst of Washington, and the worst of American politics: tribal, conspiratorial, paranoid.
They’re not all this dark, of course. In Metro Center, the almost impossibly-bland name for the station in the heart of downtown, the walls are covered with ads promoting the dollar bill. I learned, for instance, that 99% of Americans want the people, and not the government, to be in charge of money. If you can justify that statement with the necessity of a national currency, I’m all ears. The ads spring from another mainstay of American politics — the interest group, this one aimed at saving the dollar bill (from what, I don’t know). Meanwhile, another bus ad campaign portrays agricultural titan Monsanto as a cheery band of American yeomen farmers straight out of American Gothic. Needless to say, that’s not quite accurate. But truth is not the point.
In his 1917 novel South Wind, Norman Douglas wrote that, “You can tell the ideals of a nation from its advertisements.” The intervening century has only proven his prescience. A quick glance at the public advertising in Metro stations and bus shelters around Washington, DC will tell you more about America and her capital than any memorial, monument, or museum.