Before you call this ad nirvana, consider that we're talking about the airport security line. Yes, now open for sponsorship at the Los Angeles Airport and three Tennessee airports is that post-Sept. 11 purgatory where irritated travelers cool their heels while waiting to clear the security gates.
"Why would you want your product advertised at a point where consumers' anxiety, fears and maybe even anger are at a peak?" asked aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who has researched the Transportation Security Administration's effectiveness. "People in line are already in a situation they don't like; then they see my product."
Of course, SecurityPoint Media, St. Petersburg, Fla., which places 17-inch by 20-inch, non-scratchable-plastic color ads in the bottom of security trays, doesn't see it that way. SecurityPoint works through a partnership with airports, which apply for approval from the TSA, which does not receive a profit from the system.
Here's how it works: SecurityPoint provides airports free stainless-steel tables and carts with wheels for holding the polyethylene trays. In return, the airports and SecurityPoint share revenue from ad sales. Airports that advertise their own services in some of the bins, as the Los Angeles Airport is doing, receive a smaller share of revenue.
According to SecurityPoint President Joe Ambrefe, more than 22 million travelers at the four airports have been exposed to the ads so far, and the company has not received any negative feedback from travelers.
SecurityPoint executives believe travelers, rather than being turned off by yet another avenue of advertising, will be receptive to the airport ads. "Your senses are heightened when you are going through security. You are more attuned to advertising," Mr. Ambrefe said. Moreover, the company says, frequent fliers are good ad targets as they are typically heads of households and early adopters of technology.
SecurityPoint estimates travelers see a bin two or three times when they put their belongings in-most travelers use more than one bin-and two or three times when they take them out. The company guarantees the number of impressions advertisers will receive at each airport because the TSA and the airports monitor the number of travelers going through each airport.
SecurityPoint would not discuss the ad rates, although Doug Kreup, director-brand development for Rolodex, the first and only named advertiser in the program, said the buy is comparable to "traditional large-scale advertising, such as print." (SecurityPoint said it's in discussions with technology and luxury-goods marketers.)
Mr. Kreup said Rolodex boosted awareness and scored a "significant increase" in traffic to its website after it began greeting travelers at the Los Angeles Airport with messages including, "Organization. Now arriving. Please proceed to Rolodex.com." and "Give your workspace more legroom. Travel to Rolodex.com."
"A lot of people said, 'I didn't even know [Rolodex] still existed,"' said Nico Melendez, TSA spokesman at the Los Angeles Airport.
In TV interviews, some Los Angeles Airport passengers said they recalled the Rolodex brand after going through security, while others remembered the colors of the ads and some didn't notice the ads at all, Mr. Melendez said. "We have 70 million people traveling through LAX every year. The odds are that someone is going to take notice."
The question, though, is how they notice-and whether it will put them off, aviation consultant Mr. Boyd said. It is "outrageous" that the TSA is spending time and effort on advertising when "their screening program is poorly managed."
When SecurityPoint developed the idea in 2002, a third-party, independent testing firm checked consumer feedback and process efficiency. "It was particularly well-received once [travelers] could see the benefits, including that it is actually saving the airports money," Mr. Ambrefe said.
TSA rules state that the agency must notify passengers that it does not "endorse or promote any non-federal or commercial entity." Mr. Boyd argues the ad program is not free because passengers pay a security fee on every airline ticket to support the TSA.
But Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, supports the advertising. "Nobody would think twice about ads being 'endorsed' by TSA," spokesman Tom Finnigan said. "Most people know they are just ads and nothing more." The argument that TSA has better things to do than negotiate with advertisers is "just silly," he said. "It's a win-win situation: Airport security is improved at no extra cost to travelers or taxpayers."