February 8th, 2008

School Buses Latest Victim of Ad Creep

By Adam Remson
Brandweek

Late last month, the South Carolina Department of Education invited advertisers to get on the bus, literally.

Seeking a new source of revenue, the board inked a deal with contractor SAC to place an 11-inch-wide strip of advertising above the windows inside school buses. Interested school districts get about $2,100 per month per bus.

That came a month after McDonald’s agreed to remove its logo from report cards disseminated to elementary school students in Seminole County, Fla. Both are recent examples of ad creep, which some argue has gotten out of control. “It’s become so pervasive that the average educator can’t really see it,” said Joe Kelly, a steering committee member of the Campaign for A Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston, said of ad creep. “It’s really crossing the line.”

But marketing to kids is just one aspect of the phenomenon. Marketers are also using out-of-home ads to an increasingly in-your-face effect. For instance, three weeks ago, cable network A&E introduced a billboard in New York’s SoHo neighborhood that features a technology that beams targeted sounds to pedestrians. In this case, it was for a show called Paranormal State and the sounds included a voice whispering “Who’s there? Who’s There? . . . It’s not your imagination.” Holosonic Research Labs, Watertown, Mass., provided the technology for that effort. Some other recent examples:

• In late 2006, the California Milk Processing Board, known for its “Got Milk?” ads, put up a bus shelter in San Francisco that smelled like cookies. City officials quickly ordered CBS Outdoor, the company that held ad contracts with the city’s bus shelters, to take it down.

• Geico tried to place billboards on the George Washington Bridge, toll booths and approach roads last year. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, nixed the plan.

• Dr Pepper was also scolded last February and ultimately scrapped a promotion that would have sent consumers into a historic cemetery in Boston as part of a scavenger hunt.

• Internet telephony firm Jangl, Pleasanton, Calif., is testing “in-call” advertising, which credits consumers’ phone bills if they listen to 15-second ads during their phone calls.

• Microsoft has introduced a grocery cart-mounted console that shows video ads for items in stores.

• A Needham, Mass., firm called Bus Radio offers a sponsor-driven network targeted at kids on school buses.

For media buyers in the outdoor space (which was up 8% each of the last two years and should top $7 billion in 2007, per the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America, Washington), it is often hard to know where to draw the line. “The line is based on individuals—how they react and whether they feel it is intrusive or not. You have to be careful,” said Jason Kiefer, svp at out-of-home communications agency Posterscope, New York.

David Koppelman, general manager of McDonald Media, New York, lauded A&E’s effort, but looked askance at Sony’s 2004 attempt to put logos for Spider-Man 2 on bases during baseball games. “You don’t touch the national pastime,” Koppelman said. “Ads in the stadium are one thing, but inside the base path is another.”

It remains to be seen whether school bus ads will provoke the same reaction. While South Carolina educational board members have concerns about school bus ads, it appears to be going ahead with the plan. “I never thought [advertising inside school buses] was a good idea to start with,” said Donald Tudor, South Carolina’s DOE School Transportation Director, “but when you run a state program and districts request this be set in motion, you do it so they can make a choice. Ultimately, I couldn’t think of a good reason why they shouldn’t have the option.”

For its part, SAC promises the ads will be age-appropriate, promote a healthy and productive life, and are directly approved by district appointed personnel. Ads sold thus far are from local businesses.

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