Stylized MARC 'Report' posters spark online buzz

(The following article by Justin Fenton and Sam Sessa was posted on the Baltimore Sun website on June 15.)

BALTIMORE, Md. -- During the evening rush hour at the Camden Yards MARC station recently, commuters emptying out of a train made a beeline for the parking lot or the light rail. They appeared to take little notice of the large posters in the station's windows that urged them to be more vigilant about security concerns.

In fact, since the posters' debut several months ago, that lack of response has been fairly typical among MARC users. But when an image of one of the posters showed up recently on some of the Internet's most popular blogs, reaction from those in cyberspace was swift -- and mostly unpleasant.

Web surfers -- including some curious passengers -- inundated MARC, the Maryland Transit Administration and rail line operator CSX with phone calls and e-mails, suggesting the posters smacked of fascism or "Big Brother"-style oppression. The response was "really bizarre," said Sharon Wicker, an MTA spokeswoman.

What set off the sudden uproar, it seems, was the security poster's resemblance to propaganda posters used by many governments during the first half of the 20th century.

Done in the heroic style typical of such posters, it depicts three people presumably riding a train. In the foreground is a brown-haired man, standing proud and stoic, his orange tie seemingly flapping in the wind. Behind him is another man and a woman grasping a pole. Below them, large bold words urge passengers to "Watch, Ride and Report" any suspicious activity or baggage.

The posters also are adorned with a MARC logo, incorporated into an Old West-style sheriff's badge that encourages riders to be "MARC Marshals." But they were commissioned by CSX, which owns and operates the rail lines that MARC uses for its Camden and Brunswick train lines.

CSX spokesman Gary Sease was nonplused by the Web buzz.

"During the creative process, all of us felt the posters needed to convey a very, very serious message," he said, refusing to elaborate on how the poster's look was determined. "It is unfortunate that people see something more sinister in the poster -- that was not our intent at all."

The posters might have gone without much notice, though, if Washington blogger Michael Wittie hadn't stumbled across a picture of one a week or so ago in cyberspace.

While scanning the Web recently, Wittie saw a photo posted by freelance Web designer Michael Lijewski, who had snapped a shot of the poster and put it on his train photography site. Wittie linked to the image on his site, "Articulatory Loop," hoping to start a discussion.

"I just thought it was really disturbing," said Wittie, a 25-year-old health service researcher.

From there, the popular DailyKos and Wonkette blogs picked up the poster, sparking heated debates in the comments sections of their sites. Some users chalked the posters up as a "sign of the times" in post-9/11 America. Others suggested they were fake or a self-aware joke perpetrated by MARC, or that they were initiated by the Department of Homeland Security.

Lijewski, a Fallston resident whose site usually attracts maybe 15,000 hits per month, received 156,000 over a four-day span.

CSX hired Jacksonville, Fla.-based Robin Shepherd Group advertising agency to craft the posters specifically for the company's Baltimore and D.C. lines. Many other cities and agencies have been promoting similar security messages in their bus, subway or train stations -- Boston even began stopping passengers for random ID checks in May 2004 -- but it's the style of CSX's posters that has touched a nerve.

In the 1930s and 1940s, posters in this style were used by Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. They were also created in America to promote New Deal and Works Progress Administration projects, said Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The idealized figures were part of the movement's hallmark, he said.

"They don't look like real people," said Fisher, who added he was surprised in the choice of this style for the posters. "Their features are generalized. The first one looks kind of Dick Tracy-ish with that jutting chin. ... They look like they're chiseled out of stone."

The parallel to the past extends to the poster's slogan -- "Watch, Ride and Report" -- which emulates the brief but pointed messages of the older posters.

"I think the real discussion is, 'What's the effect of these kind of posters on the mindset?'" Wittie said. "Obviously it's to be paranoid and xenophobic. ... The graphic imagery, the fact that in the text there, the word 'report' is what's highlighted; that's quite scary."

Visiting the city from San Francisco for a conference, Brian Tobin said when he saw the poster at the Camden Yards station he thought it would go well next to the 1984-esque posters he has up in his room back home.

Tobin said there are similar posters on buses and trains in San Francisco that read: "Report Suspicious Activity." He said many San Franciscans don't react well to the posters -- some have even scribbled the words "Big-Brother is watching" on them.

So far, it seems, none of the MARC posters has been vandalized, and it's not clear how much attention they've drawn from passengers. MTA officials say they haven't seen an increase in reports of suspicious activity in the past several months.

John Hals, who was checking into MARC schedules yesterday, said the poster didn't bother him, though he did recognize the similarities in style. "The old posters were more kind of like, we've got to work together; they appealed to patriotism. This is more stylistic," said Hals, 40, of Federal Hill. "If anything, it's kind of colorful."

Joe McNeil, who was riding the MARC during a visit from Burlington, Vt., said the poster resembles something he saw in Russia when he visited the country several weeks ago. He said the poster wouldn't make him want to report suspicious activity at all.

"It would make me want to do just the opposite," he said. "Don't get near any of these people. Nice chins, though."

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

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