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Tunnel vision

ONE MORE empty space given over to advertising. This time it's a stretch of MBTA tunnel between the Harvard and Central Square stations that's being turned into a commercial. Instead of staring into the transit void, passengers looking out the left side of a Red Line car headed for Boston can see 15 seconds of animated Jet Skiers, snorkelers, and rock climbers on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

This is no movie or TV spot but rather a series of 400 still shots that only appear to be moving -- it's the motion of the train that gives passengers the sensation that they're seeing happy vacationers in mid-frolic.

The concept, developed by SideTrack Technologies Inc. of Canada -- and also being marketed by Submedia LLC in New York -- is touted as a way to use dead space, reach a captive audience, and provide city transportation systems with income without raising fares.

SideTrack paid the MBTA $412,000 for use of the Cambridge tunnel walls, and the MBTA's general manager, Mike Mulhern, said in a phone interview that the yearlong pilot program, which began last week, may be expanded to a 10-year commitment that could bring in $1.5 million annually from Red Line advertising alone -- and more from the Blue and Orange lines.

On paper this is great, but in the jangling reality of a hyperactive, marketing-centric culture, the loss of blessed blankness always hurts.

Advertisements assault the public from televisions in elevators, taxicabs, buses, airport terminals, doctors' offices, on gas station islands, and ATM machines. Marketers have sent their messages into outer space, written them on beach sand, put them on sports stadiums, popped them unbidden onto computer screens, and have even written them in urinals.

So while a 15-second word from a sponsor in one or two places might not be offensive, the spread to a dozen venues -- and perhaps the underground walls of every city with a subway -- makes a person want to punch the "off" button.

The blankness flying by the windows of a subway car can be soothing on the eye and spirit, providing meditative focus at the beginning or end of a day.

When the train pauses in the limbo between stations, a person peering out at tracks, cables, and the occasional mysterious door can imagine an alien subterranean world, with passageways leading deep into earth, unreachable by even the most extreme vacation tour package.

A Jet Ski zooming out of the darkness toward the window is a visual non sequitur and a reminder that even if a person booked that cruise to relax at sea, the noisy world would come right along -- probably with advertisements plastered all over the boat. 

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