It's not a science fiction story. It's not a "Saturday Night Live" skit.
"It's ad creep, and it's getting worse," says Carrie McLaren, editor and publisher of Stay Free!, (stayfreemagazine.org) a nonprofit online and offline publication that covers popular culture.
Ad creep: the way advertisements relentlessly cover more and more formerly empty spaces, like a fungus or kudzu vines.
It's what Ms. McLaren sees when she looks out her office window in lower Manhattan: a supersized Calvin Klein outdoor board.
"It was just too much, this huge ad that sucks up so much public space. You can't escape it," she says.
"Billboards like the Calvin Klein ad--and the hideous Yahoo! one nearby--now cover entire buildings in New York," Ms. McLaren fumes. "Sometimes buildings don't even bother to rent the inside--they just want to lease the outside for billboards. They make New York look like something out of `Blade Runner,' " the dystopian Ridley Scott movie where the city of tomorrow is a dark congested megalopolis of floating ads that look like the demented offspring of Godzilla, infomercials and Nascar.
Disgusted, Ms. McLaren organized 35 volunteers last fall to investigate the level of outdoor advertising blight in New York. The result: "New York's Great Outdoors," an event in Times Square in May where Ms. McLaren and her group handed out a satirical tourist map of New York advertising sites.
"We just want to see some boundaries on ads that erode what's left of our public spaces. I think most people want a space of their own where they don't have to see advertising all the time," she says.
The clutter is frustrating for advertisers and their agencies, as well.
"It's the ultimate challenge," says Jeff Hicks, president and partner of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami. "The greater the number of ads, the less people pay attention to them. One ad is the same as another now. People simply don't believe them anymore."
As a result, when online outdoor gear retailer PlanetOutdoors needed to break through the Manhattan clutter, Mr. Hicks' agency had to be innovative.
"We set up an expedition in Manhattan, complete with skyscrapers being climbed like mountains. The regular media picked up on it and turned an ad into an event," he says and explained consumers heard about the event via the news, in a way that did not seem like advertising.
It's not just about out-of-home advertising.
"You can't not see advertising all the time," says Jim Twitchell, the author of "Adcult USA" and "Twenty Ads That Shook the World." He says he sympathizes with Ms. McLaren, but he sees such protests as "feckless." "The last time you could have gone an entire day without seeing an ad was probably around 1915.
"You're exposed to about 5,000 ads every day--and that's nothing compared to what you'll see in the next 10 years," he says. "New technologies will creep ads on to any virgin space. We're already putting them on the floor tiles in grocery stores, on worksheets in home economics classes, on video screens in shopping carts.
"We turned the major bowl games into ads--the Orange Bowl became the Federal Express Orange Bowl--and now TV stations superimpose virtual ads for viewers on stadiums that aren't really there."
Eventually we could see ads on stoplights, Mr. Twitchell says, or in drinks with bubbles that will bring you a message from their sponsor. "It's just the beginning of a revolution in ad space," he adds, "and even the old-fashioned billboard is part of it."
The digital revolution has not helped slow down the pace. Online clutter has pushed advertisers out-of-home and many of the industry's new clients include dot-coms.
"All the clutter online has actually created a huge push for more and more billboards," says Diane Cimini, exec VP-marketing for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. In fact, she says, "Outdoor dot-com ads went up by almost 700% in 1999," led by E*Trade, CNET, MindSpring and others.
There may be some correlation. Overall, out-of-home revenues for the first half of this year jumped 20% to $4.8 billion compared with the same period last year. At the same time, Marc Ryan, director of media for research company Media Metrix's AdRelevance unit, estimates that 78,000 unique online buttons, banners and other ads generated 61 billion impressions during the first quarter, a 50% increase from the fourth quarter of 1999. (AdRelevance began collecting data in July 1999, so no comparable data for the first quarter of last year is available.)
While use of outdoor advertising is growing, the concept is evolving and ads are morphing to fill up any available space.
"The ads are getting larger, yes, but smaller too," Ms. Cimini says. "Some are 10 stories high. At the other end, there's street furniture--bus shelter and information kiosks, as well as mobile billboards, trucks with poster panels or electronic, 3-D, or video screen displays."
The lumbering paper posters that took weeks to paint are as bygone as Burma-Shave signs. Today's out-of-home advertising is often a computer generated painting on vinyl, easily duplicated and applied to surfaces nationally within days.
Before yearend, out-of-home advertising may expand to include boards capable of beaming messages to cellular phones as people drive past.
Another company that is using technology to expand advertising messages is E Ink, a Cambridge, Mass.-based spinoff of the famed MIT Media Lab. One technology would allow text and graphics to be beamed onto surfaces, much the way a message is sent to a pager. So far, the technology has been tested at 100 locations including a J.C. Penney Co. store in Marlboro, Mass.
Ad creep is getting worse--and better, says Esther Lee, co-founder of DiNoto Lee, New York. "If there's a surface, I expect to see an ad on it.
With the shakeout in online businesses, there seem to be fewer ads overall. But the number of spaces they'll appear on is growing all the time," she says.
Wading through the ad creep is still a herculean task, she says. More than half of DiNoto Lee's clients are dot-coms, and Ms. Lee has learned the best way to step away from the clutter is to link a marketer to a memorable image that suggests a direct connection with what consumers really need.
For example, last year DiNoto repositioned client Deja News, an online newsgroup, into Deja.com, a consumer information exchange on products and services. The agency created a TV commercial featuring two guys with laptops strapped to their bodies, jumping up and down, testing for durability.
Ms. Lee says viral marketing is becoming more important for marketers who have a surplus of patience and a deficit of cash.
"We're using personal, one-to-one contact through phone calls and e-mails for a client now. While it's slower in one way it's also one of the most effective techniques we've used," she says. "The big-scale marketing of the past will continue, bigger than ever, and it will run parallel to small-scale word-of-mouth marketing. The end result is no surface left unmarked--and unmarketed."
That includes the display screens on small hand-held devices.
The mobile/wireless advertising market will be valued at about $16.4 million, about 20% of all Internet advertising revenues by 2005, said Rosalie Nelson, senior consultant for Ovum, London.
High-tech innovations in media space include PC commercials that rotate into the screensaver mode and personal digital assistants featuring color interstitials or audio messages.
"The next big thing will be to send commercial messages to your PDA and other wireless devices and electronic publishing media," says Judy Kirpich, president and creative officer of Grafik Marketing Communications, Alexandria, Va.
Grafik's more immediate innovation includes DotSpots, 5- to 15-second commercials that rotate with a PC-user's screensaver. Client Bid4assets.com, an assets auction site, will be the first of four clients to launch a DotSpot ad in July.
"There will also be advertising on small-screen cell phones based around text taglines, sponsored information, call-back buttons and early types of discount vouchers," Ms. Nelson says.
Not all advertisers will be relying on high technology to spread the word. Red Herring, a trumpeter of the new economy, has placed its marker on old-fashioned shopping bags newly dubbed "bagvertisements" via Smart Bags, San Francisco. Search engine LookSmart also uses the medium.
"With bagvertising we place your company name, logo or Web address on minimum orders of 100,000 paper bags that we give away to about 500 stores," says Moses Abughosh, president of Smart Bags. Mr. Abughosh hopes to have 5 million bagvertisements in 10 cities by yearend.
Yahoo! and Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream are among 20 clients placing their logos on automobiles via Autowraps, San Francisco. Autowraps hires drivers based on their travel routes and occupations and then pays them a monthly fee to use the outside of the vehicle as advertising space.
Autowraps expects to have as many as 2,000 wrapped cars on the road within two years.
And the consumer who is willing to carry the bag and drive the car, might also be eager to wear the clothes.
Another MIT Media Lab alumnus, Stephan Fitch, president of Hardwear International Corp., is developing wearable video. Clothing, such as a leather jacket, includes a 6-inch, ultra-thin screen with wireless Web access. Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Network displayed the clothing at an @dtech conference in the spring and plans to use them at trade shows. The clothing will also be appearing at the jazz fest in Montreaux, Switzerland.
"It's a combination of art and commerce," says Mr. Fitch, "like MTV was."
Within two years, Mr. Fitch predicts, his computer couture will be mass-produced.
For all the statistics and talk about creep and clutter, is this yet another overblown worry? Kalle Lasn doesn't think so.
"Just your using the term `ad creep' shows how amusing you think a serious problem is," argues the founder and editor of Adbusters, a Vancouver-based organization. The group aims to raise consumer consciousness via its online and offline publications which feature informational articles and spoofs on well-known ad campaigns. The group also organizes social marketing campaigns, such as "Buy Nothing Day" and "TV Turn Off Week."
"We're exposed to 16,000 marketing messages a day. United Nations studies are showing how mental illness is becoming one of the world's leading health problems, and I believe we will soon understand that these ads are making us mentally sick," he says.
Within a few years, Mr. Lasn says, outrage over ads will reach a critical mass, "like it did in the 1960s with environmental concerns."
Ed Papazian, president of the consultancy Media Dynamics, disagrees. "Our research shows that you're potentially exposed to about 247 ads a day from newspapers, radio and TV--and people give only about half of them any attention."
On the other hand, industry insiders are also consumers.
Ms. Kirpich said "Enough was enough" and changed gas stations when the one she used put ads on the pump.
Mr. Johnson says his agency combats clutter on behalf of its clients by stipulating in a contract with Web sites how many ads from other marketers will appear on the page.
As for public outrage, well, "No billboard amendments [to legislation] were offered or approved in Congress for the first time in something like 30 years," says Ms. Cimini.
Still, there are 875,000 fewer signs along the highways since the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 became law. OAAA-sponsored research also shows that 76% of Americans believe outdoor boards give them useful information.
Ms. Cimini, Ms. Kirpich and Mr. Johnson agree that the spate of ads will succeed if they offer money or goods the way affinity services on the Internet do.
Mr. Fitch concurs, and notes his jackets won't be "Madison Avenue says--consume this--sandwich-board advertising."
"Because the entire jacket will eventually be a woven video display, you'll be able to shape-shift clothes, leopard print one moment, black leather the next. You'll show ads if you want, read the news, research the encyclopedia or play videos," Mr. Fitch says. "The revolution--in video, data and, yes, in advertisements--will be broadcast everywhere."