March 8th, 2011

To Understand Washington Ads, You've Got to Be a Code Breaker

The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—This city is different; you just have to look at the side of a bus to see that.

“WE DON’T MAKE UAVs,” reads one of the bus ads here.

“I have no idea what UAV stands for,” says Marc Silverman, 29, a chemical engineer. “Is it something to do with AIDS?”

Every day in the nation’s capital, commuters and visitors stare at ads in subway cars, on buses or on mobile billboards, unable to figure out what they mean.

But that doesn’t bother advertisers. The ads aren’t meant for everybody. They’re only for the tiny part of the traveling public that holds the federal purse strings.

The wooing used to be conducted mainly in private. Companies would try to press a card into a policy maker’s hand or meet a program manager at industry events sponsored by trade publications like Government Executive or Government Computer News.

But as the competition for lucrative federal contracts has intensified, it has spilled into the public arena—leaving many people baffled.

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