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Twenty-Three Stories of Interactive Messaging Wizardry

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NEW YORK ( -- It seems fitting that Times Square, which has always led the charge into new eras of advertising, is now home to the poster child of outdoor advertising's new interactive face.
One of the most visible and engaging displays in all of Times Square is the Reuters sign, which enables pedestrians to interact with its towering imagry via cell phones, digital cameras and e-mail connections. Click to see larger photo.

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Crawling up the side of the Reuters building at 3 Times Square, the Reuters sign at 43rd and Broadway is 23 stories of high-tech equipment demonstrating daily how the old concept of billboards can dramatically -- and literally -- connect with the new digital age. By enabling its colossal, 13-screen sign to link to cell phones, digital cameras, the Internet and live events, it proves the world's oldest medium is anything but passive.

A recent Nike promotion on the sign, for example, invited passersby to dial a phone number linking them live to the sign. Once they were connected, they had 60 seconds to design their own shoe by punching digits on a keypad. The final product was then available for download or purchase from a Web site, whose address was text-messaged back to the phone number.

The campaign ran from mid-March through mid-April and culminated with a four-hour shoe giveaway, during which anyone who designed a shoe received a free pair from a Nike street team.

"It turned people from passerby to customer," said Dave Jenssen, the Reuters Sign's creative and technical vice president. It also built the client an e-mail and phone number database.

Beyond 30-second ads
The collection of screens -- 13 wrapping around the Reuters building at 3 Times Square and a 23-story antenna-shaped sign rising up corner of the building -- don't just roll a schedule of 30-second ads. Often ads are programmed specifically for the sign, designed to react to what's going on in the street below it.

Control central for the complex system is a room filled with 40 computers and a collection of screens simulating the full display on the outside of the building. Digital designers must create images

Photo: Abbey Klaassen
Interactive designers Michael DeMaio, seated, and Tia Kim take clients' creative direction and craft a campaign to run on the 7,400-square-foot sign.
and messages that work seamlessly when viewed for the street. Coordination of such a massive animated graphic project is a constant concern -- and the reason that control room computers are linked to wireless handheld devices carried by staff members who are always on call to address unexpected problems and digital glitches.

"When you're dealing with the perishable element of time, you have to make sure everything's running all the time," said Natalie Duckett, sales manager.

Towering bra event
The mammoth sign can be seen from Central Park and several blocks down 43rd Street. In fact, Ms. Duckett said, its visibility from Limited Brands' New York office inspired the company to launch its new Victoria's Secret Ipex bra with a live event -- starring model Gisele Buchendon -- that took over both the sign and Military Island in the street below. (Military Island, the triangular strip of sidewalk that houses the U.S. Army's recruiting station, is owned by the city and home to many of Times Square's special events.)

Available to advertisers for the past two years, its technology is constantly being modified and rebuilt, depending on what marketers want, Mr. Jenssen said.

During the 2004 International Auto Show, Yahoo sponsored an interactive auto race, which invited passersby to call an 800-number on their cell phones and send cars zooming on the sign by pressing certain buttons.

A recent Honda Odyssey promotion parked the automaker's minivans on the street below the sign and a team of photographers snapped digital images of passersby sitting in the vehicle

Photo: Abbey Klaassen
A piece of the sign up close looks like little more than a child's Lite Brite game.
and then uploaded them to the sign. The title of the event? "Picture yourself in a Honda Odyssey."

For a recent campaign promoting the premiere of WE: Women's Entertainment's Bridezilla, Reuters also integrated a live event into Military Island, where 20 brides-to-be dressed in wedding garb climbed into a 10-foot cake in search of a $50,000 prize. Most of the budgets for such campaigns, according to Reuters executives, will come out of a client's interactive, TV or outdoor ad spending -- or a combination of them. A campaign can run $30,000 and up.

The mayor's office grants licenses for use of Military Island and sets strict regulations on the security and use of the space. Not every request gets granted, but "being a key Times Square tenant helps," Ms. Duckett said. Additionally, the space's proximity to ABC's Good Morning America studio and MTV's Total Request Live studio helps drum up media coverage of the events. Good Morning America, for example, covered the "Bridezilla" promotion.

One of the biggest misconceptions Ms. Duckett and her team battles with the live promotions or interactive campaigns are that consumers must pay for their interaction with the sign. Advertisers will use street teams and guerilla marketing to introduce people to a new campaign.

"We use the word 'free' a lot," Ms. Duckett said with a laugh.

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