HONG KONG TRAMS KEEP ADS ROLLING

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HONG KONG-London Transport made news this spring by announcing it would turn the entire body of one of its venerable double-decker buses into a black and gold ad for the London Symphony Orchestra.

Interesting, but hardly new. For years, marketers in this soon-to-be-former British colony have been doing much the same thing, using Hong Kong's double-decker streetcars (trams, in the local parlance) to create the greatest mobile advertising show on earth.

All 160-plus trams in this kaleidoscopic metropolis' fleet are giant outdoor boards, with splashy ads for airlines, banks, computers, cameras, credit cards, grocery products and department stores that blanket nearly every square inch of the cars' vertical surfaces.

"We call [the ads] `all-over tram,'*" says Julia Wong, advertising manager of Balfour, which handles advertising for both HongKong Tramways and the storied Star Ferries that ply the harbor between Hong Kong Island and the Asian mainland.

Ms. Wong says the blanketing of trams with a single message began five or six years ago. Recent rates have been about $2,900 a month, including the 15% agency commission, she says, adding that as contracts expire, the agency is asking advertisers to tender offers for the space.

Contracts normally run for a minimum of one year, though exceptions are made for special event advertising.

Advertisers have shown ingenuity in their designs. One camera company used a tram's headlight as a camera lens, and the Herald Tribune created a giant front page on each side of its car, with the windows doubling as a strip of photographs.

Occasionally, designs are vetoed. "We sometimes ask advertisers to improve their artwork," Ms. Wong says.

Hertz Corp. painted a tram entirely in black and was asked to put in some color to make it easier to see at night. The company added its trademark yellow, and the design was approved.

Tram advertisers represent a mix of Asia and the West, and include Delta, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, United and Korean airlines; Panasonic; Maxell; MasterCard; DHL; International Bank of Asia; Promise Amenity Life; Chubb Corp.; Epson and Star printers; and Konica and Canon cameras.

With the absorption of Hong Kong into the People's Republic of China in 1997, what's the future of this advertising medium? Recently, Ms. Wong says, representatives of the transit system in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou visited Hong Kong to explore doing similar advertising on streetcars there.

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