Who’s behind all the weird digital ads you see all over the city now?

And how did those vague, vibey astrology billboards come to proliferate all over the Fulton stop?

Who’s behind all the weird digital ads you see all over the city now?
Tired: knowing when your next train is coming. Wired: knowing when your next transit is coming. (Photo by Virginia K. Smith)

On the now-mandatory-again daily commute for us office job slobs, we all have our feet in the proverbial gutter, but some of us? Some of us are looking at the stars. Specifically, the stars in the form of the vibey video astrology billboards that have lately proliferated on both the interior and exterior walls of Manhattan's Fulton Street station.

Even the most obnoxiously performative of astrology haters can’t come away from frequent commutes through the massive new transit hub near One World Trade at Fulton these days without being exhorted to "celebrate Pisces season," maybe even retaining the knowledge that the sign of Aquarius is ruled by the planets Saturn and Uranus, or at least that Aquarius season lasts between Jan. 20 through Feb. 18. (I swear these ads used to carry little descriptors of each sign’s aspects, but these days they’ve whittled it down to just dates, planets and, why not, gemstones.)

If there's one thing commuters have it's a "deep-seated love for astrology." (Photo by Virginia K. Smith)

How did this win for the astrology girlies come about, and why can it only be witnessed at Fulton, and no other subway stations? For now, the Fulton station is run by the Westfield Corporation, meaning its billboards and ads are booked through Westfield, not the broader MTA.

And the astro billboards were conceived "in celebration of our New York City audience’s deep-seated love for astrology and provide merriment for the bustling commuter crowd," a Westfield spokesperson told The Groove via email.

We reached out to an actual astrologer — Claire Comstock-Gay, aka The Cut’s in-house astrologer Madame Clairevoyant — and wouldn’t you know it, she’s also in favor of the station’s vague assortment of astrology content.

"[The subway ads] are so baffling to me in a lot of ways and very delightful," Comstock-Gay told The Groove. "To me, one of the things that I like about astrology is that it has a lot of space for true silliness like this."

Delightful, if not necessarily practical. 

"I was trying to imagine who this is for, that doesn’t already know what Aquarius’ ruling planet is or would get anything out of this," Comstock-Gay said. "So it’s hard to see how it would be useful, but when I think about it I’d rather see an ad for silly astrology stuff than a food delivery app."

And there is at least one potential real-life benefit here: "One use case I can imagine is, your crush is an Aquarius, and you see, 'Oh nice, it's Aquarius season, I have an excuse to text my crush,' " she said. 

Why it’s a great time to get into stargazing in NYC
Don’t let anyone tell you the big city lights make it impossible to see stars. Amateur astronomers share their tips on how to get into stargazing, for free.

Bizarro subway ads are of course a long tradition of print subway advertising (RIP, Dr. Zizmor campaign). The current selection for the rest of the transit system includes but is not limited to a dog in some kind of “Karen” wig:

This fentanyl/Narcan PSA that is prominently missing the word "overdose," and this lower stakes PSA for ... North Dakota tater tots:

But as for the newer proliferation of multimedia ad space in public space across the city, it seems a safe bet that the powers that be don’t have a clear idea of how to fill it. You’ve got uncomfortable Disney copy on newsstands, and more notably, the various and sundry oddities happening over at LinkNYC, which include but aren’t limited to: 

  • NYPD propaganda
  • Glitchy, out-of-context headlines pulled from the AP (see below right): 
  • Explanations of little-known complex contexts, such as a potluck” (see below left):
(Left photo by Tim Donnelly; right photo by Jess Joseph)

Asked about their selection process for the digital ad space they’ve now put up across the city, LinkNYC’s chief marketing officer Esther Raphael told us, “Like every other media platform, we wanted people to look to us for information and inspiration.”

For the stuff that isn’t a clear outside ad — e.g., the potluck explainers — those are the job of an in-house editorial team, “curated to reflect the cultural moments that happen throughout the year in New York City and beyond.” 

Whether you prefer strange seasonal explainers or infographics about planets and gemstones, the issue may be moot sooner than you’d expect.

Like the changing seasons of the zodiac, so goes ownership of our city’s major transit hubs, and news broke recently that Westfield is attempting to wriggle out of its lease for Fulton Center just halfway through the original time frame. In spite of running 63,000 square feet of prime retail space that sees 30,000 daily visitors, the corporation has deemed the entire endeavor "financially unsustainable," meaning a potential ghost mall in the very heart of lower Manhattan.

If the whole thing folds and the only thing this large, moneyed corporation ever got right was some goofy astrology billboards, well so be it. We’ll always have Pisces season.

Hey! Becoming a New York Groove member not only supports our work, you get sweet perks too. Join us today!