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A short history of Piccadilly’s lights

A short history of Piccadilly’s lights

Known for its bright lights and big LED displays, for international companies Piccadilly Circus is one of the most exclusive advertising hoarding spaces in the world, with its outdoor signs being viewed by over two million visitors per week. Adding a touch of Times Square to London at night, the popular tourist attraction has seen several brands come and go in its fascinating 100 year history, transforming from a muddled centre of light bulbs into a coveted and prestigious advertising location.

Before the introduction of the massive illuminated screens we see today, the first electrical advertisement appeared in 1908, the same year that the Piccadilly Circus tube station opened to the public. Drinks company Perrier were the first brand to be illuminated using incandescent light bulbs, until neon lights were introduced to replace them, the first neon sign being for British meat extract product Bovril. It also was a period of further technological developments, adding moving signs to its display as seen by the operational clock sign used to advertise Guinness.

It wasn’t until 1954 that Piccadilly Circus received its first permanent mainstay sign when Coca Cola created a bespoke light up sign with the tagline, “Have a Coke”. The original sign was replaced in December 1998 by a digital projector, until 2003 when it used the space previously owned by Nescafe to create a state-of-the-art sign using LED light bulbs which curved around the building. In 2010 the company launched a Tweet Your Wish campaign, where users on Twitter could have their seasonal wishes displayed on the iconic digital display 24 hours a day until the 23 December. They’ve also had a series of successful marketing campaigns using the technology, displaying a countdown to the Special Olympics in 2012 as well as displaying regular updates regarding line closures and delays on the London Underground.

Other companies which have erected signs at the popular tourist attraction include Sanyo, who originally created a sign in 1978, replacing it with a second sign using traditional cold cathode tubes which was the last to be run in this traditional way until it was replaced by Hyundai’s computerised LED screen in 2011. Electronics company TDK have also had a permanent residency there for over 20 years, using the space previously used by companies such as Schweppes and Kodak and establishing a neon sign which remained unchanged until 2001.

Apart from company changes, there have only been a few incidents where the lights were either turned off or changed temporarily. In 1965 all the lights of the signs were turned off in order to coincide with wartime leader Winston Churchill’s funeral, occurring again in 1997 for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. In 2002 the Coca Cola sign was booked by Yoko Ono to display John Lennon’s famous words “Imagine all the people living life in peace” for a period of 3 months, costing her an estimated £150,000 for the prime site in order to provide a powerful message after the events of 9/11.

Earlier this year Land Securities, who have owned the signs since the 1970s, unveiled their plans to add a completely new space for a LED screen. Naming the free space One Piccadilly, thanks to the display’s extensive history it’s increasingly likely to receive major interest from several household brands looking to establish themselves as part of the London landscape.