IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ads increasingly inundate public places

By now, Americans have grown used to seeing advertisements on television, billboards, the Internet, even bathroom stalls. But lately, marketers have been making inroads into public  spaces where commercial intrusion may once have been considered taboo. By's Allison Linn.
Kellogg's Special K used a patented system to cover this stairway at New York's Penn Station terminal with its message.
Kellogg's Special K used a patented system to cover this stairway at New York's Penn Station terminal with its

J. Walker Smith is fond of saying that the only places he thinks can resist the call of advertisers are courthouses, places of worship and the halls of Congress. Lately, though, he’s starting to wonder if the worshipers can stay unfettered.

“I think churches are already showing evidence of succumbing to marketing,” said Smith, president of the marketing research firm Yankelovich Inc.

As for the rest of the world, well, that may be a lost cause.

“I certainly think that every other place is going to be increasingly covered with some kind of marketing message,” he added.

By now, Americans have grown used to seeing advertisements on television, billboards, newspapers, the Internet, even bathroom stalls. But lately, people hawking everything from insurance to iPods have begun trying to make inroads into public and even government-run spaces where commercial intrusion may once have been considered taboo.

The Transportation Security Administration recently approved a test plan to place advertisements in the bins used to stow wallets and belts at security check points. In some towns in Pennsylvania, government vehicles now feature ads for local businesses. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently scrapped plans for ads on the George Washington Bridge amid concerns about long-term damage to the authority's mission and reputation.

In other places where advertising has long been expected, marketers are growing more aggressive. New York City’s Penn Station was recently plastered with advertising for Kellogg's Special K as part of an ambitious project to inundate the station, stairs and all, with promotions for the cereal brand. The company launched a similar effort in Harvard Station outside Boston.

Elsewhere, some city and county buses are wrapped almost completely in advertisements for iPods and other products — a practice that drew complaints from bus riders in the Seattle area who said they couldn’t see out the windows.

The move to put more intrusive advertising in more public places comes as advertisers fret that people aren’t paying as much attention to traditional advertising methods, especially the staple 30-second television spot. That’s left marketers eager to push their message in places and ways that force people to pay attention.

“Advertisers have to be more creative and go where the people are,” said Barry Roberts, chief executive of StareWays, which created the staircase advertisement for Special K.

Special K also is running ads on television and the Internet, said Michelle Rietschel, media director at Starcom USA, which provides advertising services for Special K. But she said advertisers are realistic about people’s ability to ignore television ads, either with television-recording technology or because they are distracted by other tasks.

“It’s hard to ignore what’s happening at a train station when we’ve done it as intrusively as we’ve done it in Boston and New York,” she said.

For some, placing ads in unusual places is partly an effort to draw people in just at the time  they might be thinking about that product or service.

Doug Kruep, director of brand development for Sanford Co., said the TSA’s security bins were a perfect fit for his company’s Rolodex brand because traveling conjures up thoughts of getting organized. After taking part in an initial test at Los Angeles International Airport, Kruep said the company has been pleased with the results and hopes to expand the ad effort.

The TSA, which has committed to a wider pilot of the ad offerings, didn’t get paid in cash for the advertisements. Instead, the agency received bins, tables and metal-free bin return carts that spokeswoman Amy Kudwa valued at about $250,000. In addition, she said, the bin carts meant workers no long had to lift the bins, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in injuries.

For other agencies that oversee public spaces, advertisements offer a way to deal with growing costs, including post-9/11 security measures. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region's airports and other transportation facilities, said it has spent $2.3 billion on security investments alone since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The ads on the George Washington Bridge for insurer Geico, which were scrapped, would have generated $3.2 million over two years.

“Our aim was to try to offset very high security and operating costs without having to pass that on to the customer,” said Port Authority spokesman Tony Ciavolella.

Lee Halladay, president of Signs of Support Mid-Atlantic, said more municipalities are showing interest in her business, which puts ads on city vehicles. The money has been used for things like buying additional vehicles or boosting parks and recreation budgets.

Ads on city cars and trucks may be less obtrusive to residents than, say, an ad on a bus stop right outside someone’s house, said.

“They’re not sort of being lambasted with it in their neighborhood,” she said.

In King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, 25 of the county’s approximately 1,300 buses were “wrapped” in ads that covered most of the bus in 2006. The ads brought in about $740,000, or 12 percent of total revenue from transit advertising, said Sharron Shinbo, program project manager with King County Metro.

But in November, after rider complaints, King County officials decided to stop allowing ads that cover the windows. The ads will be eliminated beginning in 2008.

Shinbo said very few people complained. Still, she noted that while people seem more willing to tolerate a big billboard or other outdoor advertisements, to many a public service like the bus system is a different matter.

“I think there’s an ownership of public transportation that they feel,” Shinbo said. “People don’t feel like they own the billboards, but they feel like they own the bus system.”

Smith, of Yankelovich, expects companies to continue to try to push their marketing messages into unconventional places, even though some will result in public outcry.

Still, he argues that some of those campaigns will fail to draw in new business because customers these days are looking for more control of the content they see and don’t want to be inundated with a message they didn’t choose.

The risk, he said, is that those advertisers will just end up contributing more clutter to an environment already crowded with marketing messages — which consumers are getting increasingly good at simply ignoring.