Advertisers Tailgate the Road Warriors

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To get a sense of Linda McSweeney's life, watch the odometer in her Dodge Stratus. It jumps about 800 miles a week, logging her zig-zags across Massachusetts as an agency manager with First American Title Insurance Corp. Linda, 36, does everything behind the wheel: apply makeup, drink coffee, listen to the radio, catch up on her reading (courtesy of books on tape), conduct business with clients on her cell phone. Everyday at 4:30 pm, she pulls over to the side of the road to return calls left on her voicemail back at the office. Then it's back home to spend time with her husband and three sons, ages 15, 13, and 7. She hears a bit of TV news while making dinner, but doesn't subscribe to a newspaper anymore because, frankly, there's no time to read it. She needs time to sleep-so she can clock more miles tomorrow.

Linda has plenty of company on the road. Roughly 100 million Americans drive to work, according to the 1990 Census Bureau "Journey-to-Work" study, and their commute is growing: in 1995, workers logged an average of 11.6 miles between home and office, up 36 percent since 1983. Male drivers spend an average of 81 minutes per day in the car, while women record about 64 minutes daily. Radio and outdoor advertisers have long tried to connect with weary road warriors, but it's not easy to keep their attention, especially when the "scan" button on the car stereo is a few inches away. Today, marketers are experimenting with new innovations to bolster recognition-and deliver real results. Haven't passed a talking billboard yet? Don't worry, you will soon.

The airwaves offer one of the best opportunities for advertisers to get inside cars. Radio listening peaks during morning and evening rush hours, when commuters tune in for traffic reports or a few minutes with Howard Stern. Direct-response spots account for $5.7 billion, or 41 percent, of all radio advertising expenditures, according to the Direct Marketing Association. But while many drivers may want to act when they hear these messages, says Stewart Yaguda, president of Radio 2000, a business development division at radio-sales firm Interep, they're unlikely to dial an 11-digit toll-free number while in the passing lane. "If you broadcast a number like 1-800-DEMOGRAPHICS, the driver has to look for the D on their cell phone, then the E," he says. "By the time they reach M, they're probably in an accident."

Cellular Linking, based in Chicago, thinks it can help radio advertisers boost their response rates. Its "abbreviated dialing" technology allows cell phone users to respond to an advertisement by calling a three-digit number, like #800. The call is toll-free, and more important for cell users, so is the air time. Barry Zoob, president of Cellular Linking, likens the service to calling 411. A "concierge" answers the line, asks which advertiser you're calling, and routes you to the appropriate call center. Advertisers pick up the wireless and long-distance fees, which run about $5 or $6 per call, according to Zoob. The company offers the service in a limited number of markets, but hopes to penetrate 80 percent of the nation's top 100 markets by year's end.

The demographics of wireless consumers make them a lucrative target for advertisers. According to the Personal Communications Industry Association, 38 percent of all U.S. households own a wireless phone, up from 31 percent in 1997. The average wireless phone user is 39 years old and earns $62,600 a year. Roughly 70 percent are married and 78 percent own their home. "These targets aren't very responsive to traditional direct response media," says Zoob. "Forty-two percent don't read newspapers every day and they're not getting hit by your message on TV at night." Maybe that's because they're stuck in traffic: according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. cell phone consumers place 85 percent of their calls from a vehicle.

General Motors Acceptance Corp., the consumer finance division of General Motors, recognized the importance of the wireless-user market early on. In 1996, it test-marketed a direct-response radio campaign using Cellular Linking's abbreviated dial service. The 60-second spots, promoting GMAC's "SmartLease" program, generated twice as many prequalified leads as standard radio ads with just a 1-800 number. The campaign spread to six markets in 1997 with similar results, and continues today. GMAC also now features the number on its outdoor advertising. "This technology allows you to catch the consumer at the initial point of interest," says Jeffrey Scott, executive vice president-managing director of Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Michigan, which handled the campaign for GMAC. "Plus, the demographics of the cellular audience are very attractive. They skew much higher in disposable income and have a proclivity to investigate products and services they're interested in." GMAC's radio expenditures topped $1 million in 1997, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Other companies have also tapped Cellular Linking's services, including Geico Insurance, Lincoln-Mercury, and Boston Chicken.

Billboard advertising raises a number of challenges for marketers. While consumers may listen to a radio spot for as long as a minute, they whiz by a billboard in about seven seconds. Finding outdoor space that's available and located in the right markets can be another hurdle. Still, the outdoor advertising is booming, partly due to technological improvements that have cut the time needed to generate a campaign in several locations. Indeed, the Outdoor Advertising Association estimates billboard ad revenues in 1998 to hit $2.3 billion, up 9 percent from 1997.

A much-needed dose of creativity has also helped billboards reach new heights. Joe Boxer, the underwear company, ran a $250,000 billboard campaign during the last two months in seven national markets that asked passersby to tune in to a specific radio frequency. When they did, listeners heard a humorous message about Joe Boxer that sounded like someone was scanning channels on a radio dial. Passersby could pick up the micro-radio station for about a mile, says Andrew Milder, president of Business Broadcast Systems, which provided the system for Joe Boxer. In another campaign, Atlantic Records broadcast a toll-free number on its frequency so people could call in for free concert tickets and CDs. The record label later told Milder that the promotion blew out its phone banks. What could be next for Milder's company? Talking billboards on Sunset Strip touting the Grammy Awards on Feb. 24.

Talking billboards can do more than just publicize events. Milder set up a frequency last year for a billboard that advertised a new, upscale housing development in California. Listeners to the channel learned about the development's amenities, pricing options, and other details as they drove by. Billboards like this one could have applications even after folks move in, Milder suggests. It might become a community radio, he says, informing residents about activities in the development, such as afterschool programs for kids. Just what today's harried mobile consumers need: staying close to home, even when they're on the road.

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