Pedestrian cab reborn as ad star

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From exterior signage that glows or flashes with continuously changing content to interiors replete with video monitors or the Internet, taxicab advertising is becoming increasingly creative. Driving attention to these movable billboards are sleek innovations in design and technology.

"I see us as a great complement to billboard advertising," says Keane Colomb, national sales director of Medallion Taxi Media, New Orleans. "Our strongest selling points are we're illuminated and one of the only things that penetrates areas where buses and standard billboards aren't allowed."

The vehicle's roof is a favorite spot for taxi advertising.


"Taxi tops are almost a required part of outdoor advertising in markets like Manhattan and Las Vegas, and it's catching on more and more around the country," says Stephen Freitas, chief marketing officer, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. "Regardless of what city you're in, there certainly are taxis commuting from airports to hotels. ... If you're going after the white-collar business professional, you can reach them very effectively."

"A taxi top is a tremendously great buy. It can't be zoned out. ... It's eye-level media," adds Jerry Kutner, president of TaxiVision.

Medallion operates in about 30 markets, creating a variety of exterior displays. Recently, the company worked with Yahoo! in New York to add neon signs as part of a campaign that brought free, wireless Internet access into 10 cabs.

"It was the idea of bringing Yahoo! everywhere," says Linda Bennett, senior brand marketing director for the Internet company. "The Internet is wireless for people on the go, and the epitome of that for us was a taxicab." Yahoo! had put laptop computers in San Francisco cabs back in 1999, and when it was looking to bring the campaign to New York, the technology had changed and therefore so did the program.

"In New York City, cabs are an icon. Bringing that icon into the 21st century was very exciting for us," Ms. Bennett says. "Yet when we found ourselves a year later looking at the wireless Web and what that meant, the devices had changed very substantially. Now we're sitting here with a little Palm VII."

The Palm Pilot sits in a custom-built pocket and is attached by a tethering device, so "If somebody would try to steal or pull it, it would rip the motherboard of the Palm out," Ms. Bennett says.

Yahoo! began the campaign as a six-month test program in late 2000. It's been so successful that it was renewed until the end of 2001.

"The great thing about cabs is they're on the road 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you can't close your eyes or flip the channel when you see a cab go by," Ms. Bennett says. "It just gives us great exposure. It's a really unique way for people to connect with Yahoo!"

In addition to neon signs, for the Super Bowl being held at the Louisiana Superdome next January Medallion is creating three-dimensional cab tops for Miller Brewing Co.'s Miller and Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser beers.

"I think you're going to see more of these things popping up, especially around special events," Ms. Colomb says.

Creating something out of the ordinary is the intention of New York-based Adapt Media. Adapt has produced cab tops that use Global Positioning System and electronic display technologies to create ads that can change instantly.

The company's AdRunner technology allows advertisers to target specific audiences based on a cab's location and time of day. AdRunner supports display units that communicate over a wireless network with a central ad server. Advertisers can access their content via any Internet browser.

"We bring the billboard to the people," says Eyal Cohen, Adapt's founder and co-managing director. "Messages carry a feeling of urgency. We can update sports scores, run breaking news or advertise products with finite inventory limits."


The company launched a 50-cab pilot program last month in New York. Mr. Cohen says 150 to 200 cabs would be added by yearend. Advertisers so far include Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN and AOL Time Warner's Time Warner Cable (AA, May 28). ESPN runs sports scores in a three-block radius of Madison Square Garden. Time Warner uses AdRunner to let consumers know which neighborhoods can get its cable modem service. Other Ad-Runner clients include Bloomberg, which lists stock ticker information around Wall Street, and McDonald's Corp., which advertises its restaurant locations between the hours of noon and 2 p.m.

New England-based Vert also utilizes GPS technology and wireless Internet to engage pedestrians with geotargeted and time-sensitive messages. The company's Vert Intelligent Display is fitted to tops of cabs, delivering full-motion video and graphically based animated ads.

The company sells ads in 10-second spots, says Rick Wessel, VP-marketing and business development. Advertisers include Directbanking.com and Lycos.

"You sell someone a spot based on where and when they'd like to reach customers, using the impact of outdoor to reach audiences at the best possible time or place," Mr. Wessel says.

Vert's product was a perfect fit for Lycos' campaign that focused on 18-to-34-year-olds, says Kim Patrick, VP at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, a Boston-based division of Interpublic Group of Cos. that handles Lycos.

"We were looking to inject some energy into the brand and were looking for what we called unexpected places outdoors," she explains. "This Vert taxi ... really matched with our strategy of multiple destinations and new technology and unexpected places."

TaxiTops, a division of outdoor ad giant Eller Media Co., also recently added Internet-based GPS digital screens to its already long list of offerings. The company, which operates in 15 markets, calls its new product Smart Tops. These tops debuted in New York in mid-June.

"I call it wow technology," says Charlie DiToro, TaxiTops chief operating officer. "It gives the clients complete control over their content."

"Geotargeting-that's the name of the game in outdoor advertising today," Mr. Freitas says. "Outdoor's strength is in its ability to target."

In another new twist, in April TaxiTops introduced "lenticular advertising," a holographic-type sign that allows multiple images to appear on one side of a cab. Nike used this technology in a campaign aimed at marathon runners.

And while New Yorkers can log on to the Internet thanks to Yahoo!, passengers in Las Vegas and Toronto can experience CabTV, created by TaxiVision in partnership with TaxiTops. CabTV acts like a virtual tour guide using interactive, touch-screen technology that holds up to 75 minutes of video programming. If the screen isn't touched, it runs a 12-minute loop of 30-second commercials.


"Most travelers know where they're going to stay, but they don't know where they're going to eat, shop, gamble, etc.," says Mr. Kutner. "So it's very compelling. It's a 10-inch screen less than 2 feet from your face."

"When you can create a 10-second vignette commercial for CabTV, you can start marrying to what your TV campaigns are doing to really truly meet business people during the day," Mr. DiToro adds.

CabTV will hit Phoenix later this year, Mr. Kutner says. Other features also are in the works. "There's a lot more technology that can be added to this," he says.

The trick is transforming potential into something that will be really useful for advertisers.

"Thanks to media fragmentation, some of these off-mainstream ad vehicles are becoming more appealing to advertisers, especially when they provide true value to the consumer," says Bob Walters, head of media buying at Phoenix-based Moses Anshell Advertising. "But some of these things are simply gimmicky, and we would have to carefully evaluate their value before recommending them to a client."

Those like Mr. Walters, who apply a critical eye to taxi advertising, are literally going to have to examine the vehicle from top to bottom. E-Caps offers hubcap-cover ads that remain static as the wheels move. E-Caps debuted in Los Angeles and Toronto this summer.

Contributing: Kate Fitzgerald

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