Have you ever wondered how it’s possible to command more than a few seconds of someone’s time in the packed madhouse that is Times Square, a.k.a. the “Crossroads of the World” and the unofficial sensory overload capital of America?
As it turns out, the answer is easy: Lure the curious with the promise of a mega-selfie.
For two hours on Thursday, throngs of tourists and even a few locals took it up on the offer, lingering on a spot of concrete near 43rd Street and Broadway and whirling around to take a selfie with their own giant images displayed high above. Very meta.
Nicole Kankam, the managing director of marketing for the tennis association, said the digital takeover was an attempt to attract a new type of tennis fan: someone who is younger, someone who is more digitally savvy and, crucially, someone who might buy a ticket and help fill the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. (Thanks to renovations, the center can host an additional 100,000 fans by 2018.)
To draw a hipper crowd and sell those tickets, Ms. Kankam said: “We’ve really got to engage a more socially active, a younger, more diverse demographic. Socially engaging fans is a way to do that.”
Success would be measured by social media impressions, she said, like tracking usage of a special Snapchat geofilter created for the occasion and hashtags like #USOpen.
Not surprisingly, along with photos of visitors came a parade of advertisements: A retractable roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium! Serena Williams! Andy Murray! Lobster rolls! Justin Timberlake! Chef Morimoto!
A square packed with so many starry-eyed tourists and rowdy Elmos raises a question: Who would actually still be in town in this vacation month to buy tickets?
Birgit Caroen, a 24-year-old Belgian tourist passing through New York on her way to Canada, said that she was a tennis fan “10 years ago, when there were a lot of famous Belgian tennis players,” but that she wouldn’t be able to attend.
Still, she and her friends lingered for about 15 minutes, watching their photos disappear and recirculate. That’s the kind of exposure, or “buzz,” that Ms. Kankam said the tennis association was looking for.
The powerful allure of mega-photos like these comes with complicated back-end mechanics, according to Lara Herzer, a creative director at McGarryBowen who worked with the association and another agency, Horizon Media, to put together the project.
Here’s how it worked: A street team of eight people dressed in United States Open gear engaged with visitors and snapped photographs of people on their iPads. Another creative director, sitting in a conference room somewhere, downloaded those photos and sent them to the companies that pushed the displays to billboards for a 10-second Times Square broadcast.
Who knew? Also, how much does this cost?
Ms. Kankam said that the amount paid by the tennis association, a nonprofit, was “hard to quantify,” but that companies like Citizen, the watchmaker, allowed the U.S.T.A. to take over their digital billboards free.
Michael Galkin, a sales, research and marketing manager with the signage company Branded Cities, which leased two of the six billboards to the association, would not comment on the cost of the campaign, but said that talks for a short takeover, or “roadblock,” like this one usually start at about $25,000, beginning with one billboard.
The tennis association takeover involved far more billboards, of course, but in the world of Times Square billboard prices, the project was still most likely a bargain. Just down the street, close to where the Naked Cowboy hangs out, one of the most expensive pieces of outdoor advertising space on the market costs $2.5 million for a four-week takeover.
In the end, among the people who lingered the longest were two Bronx natives: Evelyn Hernandez and Esther Livé, who had journeyed to Midtown Manhattan for a manicure and a pedicure and spent more than a half-hour in the middle of the action.
Ms. Hernandez said she had friends coming into town to watch the Open, and that she would go, too, if she could just find a ticket.