Why Those Fake-Poetry Subway Ads Are So Annoying

Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If you live in a major American city and ride the subway, once in a while you’ll see a poem, often accompanied by some pretty art, where an advertisement would normally be. That’s because since 1992 the Poetry Society of America has bought ad space on subways and given it over to poetry for its “Poetry in Motion” program, touted on the organization’s website as “one of the most popular public literary programs in American history.” In New York, the poets featured have ranged from literary household names like Emily Dickinson to William Carlos Williams to lesser-known-to-most figures like Lady Otomo No Sakanoe.

Last year, the company PolicyGenius — “Comparing Insurance Quotes Made Simple” — decided to spoof Poetry in Motion by placing ads that are laid out similarly at first glance, but which, upon sucking the reader in to believing they are reading a real poem, eventually reveal themselves to be, well, ads for an insurance company. For example:


Fresh milk

All these things

are talked about

in other subway poems.


we included them

in this one

We have the space

All we need to say

is that we make it easy

to compare life insurance online.

This idea was well received by some people, apparently. Late last year it won something called the “US Creative Work of the Week,” as voted on by readers of the advertising publication the Drum.

But on the other hand: These ads are terrible and a lot of people hate them. I’m one of them. Every time I see one of these ads my eyebrows arch and I get mad and my mood dips several points. I’m not alone:

This came up at a birthday party I attended at a bar recently: Both the person sitting across from me and the one to my right suddenly tensed up and got mad when it did. “I feel like I just want to file a cease and desist order,” said the person to my right. I did not know either of these people well, but both seemed like relaxed, easygoing individuals, and both became measurably less relaxed and easygoing as soon as the Policygenius ads came up.

Why are these ads inciting, in some people, such a visceral reaction? A pseudopsychological theory: The nice thing about the Poetry in Motion campaign is that the ads offer a brief, meaningful respite from the frequently unpleasant experience of riding the subway. When your eyes fall upon one of the poems, whether or not it’s good — and plenty of them aren’t — your stress level falls just a little bit. The experience of reading a poem is basically the opposite of the experience of riding a crowded New York subway. No one’s trying to sell you anything or invade your personal space: You’re just. Reading. A. Poem.

By the time the PolicyGenius ads rolled out, we subway riders had all been conditioned to associate ads that look a certain way with this experience: “Oh, it’s some poetry — I’m going to ignore the guy puking at the other end of the car and the fact that we’ve been stalled in a tunnel under the East River for 20 minutes and just enjoy some Emily Dickinson.” But in this case … Nope. It’s just someone trying to sell you something. Again. Is the puke dribbling closer to your feet? What’s that smell? Just how sturdy are these river-tunnels, anyway?

This isn’t all PolicyGenius’s fault. This phenomenon, in New York at least, is inextricably linked to the decline of a subway system that, at this point, basically feels like a bunch of pockmarked Yugoslavian shipping containers held together by Scotch tape and debt. The ads would probably be way less annoying on a Scandinavian subway system. But still: PolicyGenius is forging an association between its own name and the sensation of being robbed of a peaceful, pleasant moment during what is often the worst part of one’s day. That doesn’t seem like a good ad strategy.

Why Those Fake-Poetry Subway Ads Are So Annoying