Commercial Messaging Creeps Ever Outward Across City Surfaces

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NEW YORK ( -- Pedestrians in Manhattan jostle for sidewalk space with human billboards whose tattooed foreheads bear the message "Scion." They stride beneath
Photo: Hoag Levins
Advertising seems to reach out from every turn in many parts of the city. Here, backlit ad panels wrapping a two-station phone booth hawk a SciFi Channel program. Click to see larger photo.

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lightpole banners for JP Morgan Chase as newspaper jockeys thrust free daily tabloids at them and Starbucks employees hawk free samples. Overhead, affixed to building maintenance scaffolding, loom gargantuan billboards a block long.

Construction sites are ablaze with "wild postings" for music cable channel Fuse, and McDonald's golden arches glare from trash bins, warring for a pedestrian's attention with taxi-top ads, outdoor streaming video and countless other attention-getting ads.

Buying up every inch
For New Yorkers, life in the nation's largest city and advertising, entertainment and financial capital includes a daily blizzard of commercial intrusions. And marketers' street feats are increasingly being replicated in cities nationwide. No available space is left unpurchased from "station dominations" (in which a marketer buys every inch of for-sale media in railway and bus stops) to "spike media," such as paper coffee cups and dry-cleaning bags.

Some call such stunts guerilla marketing. Others call it ad creep. But discussion over how much is too much is approaching a deafening roar as some city governments, concerned citizens and activists mount an offensive to take back the streets.

Overzealous marketers have been slapped with fines for defacing city property -- Microsoft was sanctioned by New York in October 2002 when the marketer affixed butterfly decals promoting its MSN 8 Internet service on sidewalks. The company was fined $50 and told to clean up the streets. IBM in 2001 paid fines after spray painting "peace, love and Linux" graphics on sidewalks in Chicago and San Francisco that stained public spaces.

NYC's $1 billion RFP
New York has made a move to control ad clutter on the streets, issuing a request for proposal for bids on a 20-year contract worth an estimated $1 billion to design, build and install street furniture, including news kiosks, wrapped in advertising space. Under the contract's terms, the successful bidder will control 80% of the space; the city will keep rights to the remainder.

Cash-strapped cities are in a bind, however, in denouncing marketing invasiveness; consider that New

Photo: Hoag Levins
Scaffold boards -- temporary billboards that can run for as long as a block on building maintenance scaffolding -- add powerfully to the sense of the city's near-total envelopment by commercial messaging technologies. Click to see larger photo.

York has named Snapple its official beverage and Los Angeles is exploring the sale of everything from "official water" rights to LAPD-branded gadgets and gear.

But howls aren't just coming from government. Fed-up fans drew the ad line at the baseball diamond when public outrage over a plan from Columbia Pictures' Sony to promote Spider-Man 2 with on-field base ads forced Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to revoke the pact only days after it was announced.

Public reaction
Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College, denounces the gutter clutter as "a pollution," and the public seems to agree. Over half (61%) of consumers queried by pollsters Yankelovich Partners feel that the amount of marketing and advertising has gotten out of control. Nearly half (45%) say that the amount of marketing and advertising to which they are exposed detracts from their experience of everyday life.

The figures are stunning. Thirty years ago, the average American was targeted by 560 daily advertising messages, according to research from the Media Kitchen, part of MDC Partners' Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York. Today, the number is over 3,500.

"Consumers are cynical," said Paul Woolmington, Media Kitchen's CEO. "Their barriers are up. Now, the way you say your message is as important as what you say."

Attracting attention
The result, like it or not, is ever-more extreme efforts. "There is overwhelming evidence that novelty attracts attention," said Mr. Schwartz, who is also author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Yet while messages communicated in surprising ways tend to be remembered,

Photo: Hoag Levins
'Wild postings' for cable TV programs and entertainment acts often cover every inch of a vertical surface facing the street in some New York neighborhoods. Click to see larger photo.

"grabbing attention has nothing to do with valence, or favorability, of attracting attention," said Daniel Howard, chair of the marketing department at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business. "Marketers [use surprising tactics] because they assume it'll be favorably perceived, but that's an erroneous assumption."

They are indeed trying novel approaches. Ads have appeared for USA Network's Westminister Dog Show broadcast on coats worn by mutts and pedigrees romping in city dog runs. One agency in London projected the image of a naked woman (a contender to win the 100 Sexiest Women contest for U.K. lad-mag FHM) onto the Houses of Parliament in London for 10 minutes on a Sunday evening. Traffic was blocked in Times Square during lunchtime while rapper Wyclef Jean crooned songs, the lyrics of which mention LG Mobile phones.

Free dailies
So great is the desire to snare consumers' attention, free daily tabloids have launched in major markets nationwide, from Dallas' Quick to Riverside County, Calif.'s The D, in the past 12 months alone. AmNew York, a Tribune Co.-owned free daily offered in New York City since last fall, got some head-to-head competition May 5 with the launch of Metro from Metro International, which already has editions in Philadelphia and Boston. The point of these ad-supported publications: to reach a consumer in a (rare) free moment.

Being on the street, marketers claim, is increasingly important, particularly when trying to reach an elusive audience. Cable network Fuse, which is aimed at 12 to 34 year olds, has street teams ready to deploy in 20 markets nationwide. "There's so much competition for this group," said Mary Corgiliano,

Photo: Hoag Levins
On a somewhat more micro scale, the 4.5 million New York riders who stride through ad-festooned tunnels and platforms to board ad-lined subway cars now use an ad-backed MetroCard to do so. Click to see larger photo.

Fuse's vice president of marketing. "They're not always sitting in front of the TV, so we have to find them." She estimates her guerilla troops, who execute several campaigns per month, reach 300,000 people per month.

PR and journalism
But even a relatively inexpensive guerilla effort, because it's seen by a narrow local audience, only truly pays off if the message spreads virally -- via gossip, the Internet, tabloids or TV news -- and emerges as a story communicated nationally. That's the role of public relations and, subsequently, journalists, which are crucial to promulgating a message and hence, brand awareness.

Getting a story on a guerilla event published in magazines or newspapers with national distribution "kind of helps you kill two birds with one stone," said Jennifer Kohl, chief operating officer of Young & Rubicam's Brand Buzz, a WPP Group company. "You haven't made the financial commitment [of an ad buy in a national publication] but you get nationwide exposure. It's a win-win."

Effectiveness is debatable
Despite the ubiquity of guerilla efforts, their effectiveness -- even those that achieve nationwide notoriety -- vs. other types of media is debatable. Consider that a $5,000 local spot buy in Portland, Ore., would yield well over 200,000 impressions. Not factoring in the cost of commercial production, that is a much greater reach compared to what can be achieved using a local guerilla effort, comments one media strategist.

Few marketers, to be sure, rely on guerilla marketing alone, but many regard it as a crucial component of their total marketing mix. "Different individuals respond to each method in their own way," said Brian Bolain, Scion national sales promotion manager. "We are convinced that traditional media only would not be sufficient to reach our target," he said. "People recognize that we are willing to work very hard to get their attention, which leads to an emotional relationship with the brand."

Relationship of backlash?
But it may also risk a backlash from those annoyed with unrelenting ad messages littering the landscape.

Photo: Hoag Levins
Human sign boards roam the streets of New York each day and are particularly vigorous in and around train and bus stations. Some, like the man above, wear vests or A boards. Others carry sign poles. And yet others wear like temporary tattoos the names of products on their foreheads. Click to see larger photo.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of watchdog group Commercial Alert, believes that consumer outrage over the proliferation of advertising might result in greater restrictions on marketers. "The American public will not stand for getting hammered every day. It could spring back to the point where we have the right to be left alone," he said. "The [advertising] industry has to get a grip on itself."

For now, the street war shows few signs of abating, even as the debate around how much is too much rages. "Too much is now," Southern Methodist's Mr. Howard maintained. "People are actively avoiding ads." Even some practitioners admit the envelope can be pushed too far.

"As a firm believer in guerilla marketing, I think on-field base ads are taking it too far," said Suzanne Hansen, senior account manager at GoGorilla Media, New York.

Marketers, however, will certainly reassess their street strategy if and when they discover that their messages are no longer resonating. "With something like 3,000 messages aimed at consumers, probably 99% aren't recognized," noted Scion's Mr. Bolain. The answer to guerilla-advertising overkill? Find the next thing.

"Once anything becomes too mainstream," Mr. Bolain added, "our job [as marketers] is to stay one step ahead."

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