Once almost universally respected as rare islands of personal privacy, public bathrooms have now become a major target of mainstream marketers and their advertising media buyers.
In the old days, the only commercial messaging normally found on toilet stalls and urinal walls were those placed by antisocial cranks and hookers of various sexual orientations. Often using ballpoint pens like chisels, they scrawled phone numbers to call for a good time.
But in recent years, marketers like Sony, Unilever and Nintendo along with major liquor companies and TV networks have been elbowing the hookers and cranks aside to get their own commercial messages in front of a demographic with its pants lowered and its zipper undone.
Deodorant brands, recording artists, video games and car companies are routinely buying space on the doors of toilet stalls or urinal walls. Meanwhile, other assorted "guerrilla" media vendors offer condom packaging and urinal mats as relatively inexpensive messaging surfaces.
The venue offers an audience captive to its biological needs, notes David Turner, president of the Indoor Billboard Advertising Association, founded in 1998. The group's members are 30 independent companies that sell space on "boards" in 200 markets in the U.S. and Canada.
"In a restaurant, 75% of the patrons use the restrooms. In a bar or a nightclub, the average patron uses a restroom almost three times per stay," said Mr. Turner.
When Sony Music launched country singer Gretchen Wilson this May, the company's media plan included restroom advertisements in clubs and sports venues including the Nashville Speedway and Gaylord Entertainment Center.
"The arena holds 50,000 people, watching football, drinking Cokes and beers all day. They'll go to the bathroom possibly three times a day," said Margie Hunt, senior director, marketing, Sony Music Nashville. "We knew Gretchen's music would appeal to lots of people who go to the speedway. It is just a matter of getting the most impressions."
Marketers like restrooms for cost and targetability, as seen by package-goods giant Unilever, which has advertised its Axe deodorant in bathrooms since the product launched in the U.S. in August 2002. It is currently running restroom ads from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, in 10 major U.S. markets.
Aimed at 18-to-25 year old men, Axe is a brand that "is about helping a guy attract women," said David Rubin, senior brand development manager. "In a bar, he's much closer to our brand promise," said Mr. Rubin. "He's thinking about meeting someone, he's in the right mind-set."
Though relatively small in size-the Indoor Billboard Advertising Association estimates its North American revenues will reach $50 million in 2004-compared to the $5.5 billion in outdoor advertising, advertising in restrooms is on the rise, up 14% from 2003, which rose 12% over the year before. Women's apparel marketers had the largest increase year to date, 48%.
just one part
Most marketers include bathroom ads as just one part of a plan that includes more traditional media such as TV, print and outdoor. But for certain targets, advertising in bathrooms is the piece de resistance, so to speak, of a campaign.
Nintendo achieved one of its most successful game launches in 2001 when it introduced "Conker's Bad Fur Day" with a media campaign that included urinal mats, printed with the Conker URL, placed for several months in men's bathrooms in major urban markets. Aimed to appeal to college-aged guys, Conker is a squirrel who, among other things drinks and urinates frequently.
In the first two weeks of the game's launch the Conker Web site had 300,000 unique visitors, said Gina Broderick, associate media director, Starcom Worldwide, part of Publicis Groupe's Starcom Mediavest Group, which handles Nintendo's media buying and planning.
To be sure, urinal mats aren't for every advertiser; in fact, GoGorillaMedia, a New York vendor of guerrilla media that produces message-laden tchotchkes-like swizzle sticks, condoms and match books-for clients, said that although many marketers inquire about urinal mats, few buy.
"It is very difficult to get a client past the fact that there'll be people [urinating] on their ad creative," said Joe Bonadio, senior account manager. "It is a challenge."
The packaging of condoms distributed in public men's rooms has also become a hot advertising medium. Herc, a maker of energy-drink powder, hired GoGorilla to produce a condom package buzz marketing campaign. It featured creative taglines like "Play Harder" and "Keep it up." GoGorilla's senior account manager, Suzanne Hansen, noted that the message was "very specific to the medium."
As Axe's Mr. Rubin notes, "If you have the right creative, there's a lot of talk value" in bathroom advertising.
But even marketers who buy space in restrooms put a limit on the venue.
"I wouldn't do graffiti advertising in a strip club," said Ms. Hunt of Sony Music Nashville.
Even Ms. Broderick of Starcom Worldwide, responsible for the Conker urinal mats, agrees "bathroom advertising comes with baggage: It is a bathroom. You really have to work with the humor of the fact that you are in the bathroom. The link between the message, the media and the target has to be at play."