April 6th, 2008

Captivating an Audience

By Lena H. Sun
The Washington Post

In Break With Staid Look, Cash-Strapped Metro Sets Sights on Placing High-Tech Ads in Stations

In 1704, the Boston News-Letter published the first American newspaper ad. In 1941, the first TV spots were broadcast—for a ticking Bulova watch. In 1999, Internet advertising broke the $2 billion mark.

And in 2008, motion-triggered ads will come to the Washington area’s Metro system. Maybe.

If approved by Metro engineers, a large, interactive advertisement could be installed this spring in the Farragut West Station downtown, officials said. The wall advertisements go into action when people walk by or wave their hands. It would be the first such interactive ad in the area, according to the company that provides the patented technology, Orlando-based Monster Media.

Metro, which prides itself on a stark and distinctive look, has been reluctant to embrace the ubiquitous advertising found in other large transit systems around the world. But as the cash-strapped agency struggles to find revenue to meet its increasing needs, officials have relented. In addition to the moving ads, the agency wants to test flat-screen monitors that broadcast real-time information. It is allowing giant floor ads that resemble works of art and, for the first time, ads that run the length of rail-car ceilings called “Michelangelos.”

“What we’re trying to demonstrate is that we can do these things and still have integrity and aesthetics, and it can be fascinating and entertaining,” said Dan Langdon, Washington regional manager for CBS Outdoor, which has the advertising contract for the Washington and New York subway systems.

The New York system has had interactive ads for more than a year. In a Cottonelle toilet paper spot that ran last month at Grand Central Terminal, a puppy rolled over when people walked by, and the words “Cottonelle . . . a nice roll” flashed up. (The video can be seen at http://monstermedia.net/video.php?cottonelle_GCS).

In the past three years, motion-triggered ads have been installed at JFK, Houston and Miami airports and professional sports venues in Dallas, Denver and Philadelphia, said John Payne, president of Monster Media. The technology was also used to market dog food, whipped cream and air freshener at 10 stores in a Florida grocery chain last year, Payne said.

A consumer research firm found that among those 25 and younger, 74 percent were able to remember the products, compared with the typical 10 to 15 percent recall rate for print and radio ads and less than 5 percent for Internet ads, Payne said.

“The buzz for this has been phenomenal,” said Jodi Senese, executive vice president for marketing at CBS Outdoor.

In buttoned-down Washington, the plan is to install one 7-by-15-foot screen at Farragut West this spring, Metro and advertising officials said. (No word yet on the advertisers.) The project is part of an expanded ad campaign approved by the Metro board last summer to boost operating revenue.

Metro receives about $35 million a year from advertising, the largest source of revenue that does not come from fares, fees or local governments. By expanding advertising, Metro hopes to earn an additional $3 million in ad revenue this year, officials said.

Based on preliminary projections, Metro could receive $110,000 from a single motion-activated ad at Farragut West for one month, CBS Outdoor and Metro officials said. The interactive ads are more expensive to install but more appealing, because they allow advertisers to frequently change them. They also bring in more dollars than the station-blanketing ads that are also part of Metro’s push for a new look.

But advertising has always been a sensitive subject at Metro. Unlike commercial transit systems, Metro was built to raise the image of mass transit. “A certain dignity and even elegance is sought after,” Metro architect Harry Weese once wrote. There was to be “no stigma of cheapness or of the bargain basement,” he said.

Last summer, the debate over how much advertising to allow so divided the agency’s Riders’ Advisory Council that it was unable to agree on a position. Some members said they did not want Metro plastered with ads. Others said they would prefer more advertising to higher fares.

Other transit agencies have taken the more-is-better approach. In addition to traditional ads, the London Underground has about 1,000 digital ads, including 19-inch digital screens mounted on the sides of escalators in 12 stations. The Tube is also testing cross-track projection, in which ads are projected across train tracks while commuters wait on platforms, said Nicky Cheshire, sales director for CBS Outdoor, which also has the advertising contract for the London system.

In the Tokyo subway and commuter train systems, ads plaster pillars inside stations, cover escalator panels and hang vertically from rail-car ceilings. They are also on overhead grab handles.

Metro wants to award a contract this summer for the installation of the flat-screen video monitors for real-time information and advertising. The winning bidder would be required to cover all costs. The first pilot screens probably wouldn’t go up until the end of the year.

And since the beginning of the year, some high-ridership stations such as Farragut North, Metro Center and Gallery Place—more than 50,000 people churn through each on an average weekday—have been covered with wall banners, vertical ads on pylons and pillars, and large floor graphics.

At Gallery Place, the latest exclusive ad campaign is for the Library of Congress. Black and white ads depict famous Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Jackie Robinson and Marilyn Monroe. At the Seventh and F streets entrance by the Verizon Center, a 12-by-20-foot floor ad of Lincoln greets riders after they pass through fare gates.

At Farragut North, the exclusive advertiser this month is United Technologies. Large, three-dimensional color graphics show the internal workings of a Sikorsky helicopter, a Pratt & Whitney jet engine and a spacesuit.

The ads are made of a vinyl designed to stick without leaving residue.

Metro expects to earn at least $69,000 for the station-saturating ads at Gallery Place and about $60,000 from the one at Farragut North, said Ron Rydstrom, Metro’s marking director.

Other formats have started to appear on trains. On the Red, Orange and Blue lines, 50 rail cars are running ads for Air France on their exteriors for the next three months. Thirty rail cars have ads for American University’s summer session that run the length of the ceilings.

The ads, which went up last week, are attracting attention. Patrick Meehan, an official on temporary duty at the Canadian Embassy, let Red Line trains roll by the other day as he gazed at the ad-covered pillars at Farragut North.

“It’s eye-catching. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

Advertising officials are hoping for similar reactions when the motion-triggered ad is installed at Farragut West. The technology relies on an infrared beam projected onto a screen or surface. When a person passes through the beam, the action registers in computer software. The software brings up a different image, making it look as if the image moved, said Payne of Monster Media.

Metro engineers need to ensure that the equipment can be mounted safely in the ceiling and that enough electricity can be supplied before the projection system can be installed at the 18th and I streets entrance at Farragut West. Payne said the company is also planning to install interactive ads at BWI and Dulles airports.

Anything new is going to make an impression on riders, said David Meerman Scott, author of a recently published book about marketing and public relations.

But there may be a flip side.

“There is a danger that it will be more annoying to them,” he said.

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