Novel marketing opps bow

It's 9 a.m. and I'm late for work. I make a beeline for the closest Starbucks, passing giant billboards pasted on the sides of buildings. Gucci. Molson Canadian. On the sleeve of my Guatemala blend there's an ad for a job recruiting Web site.
Waiting for the streetcar, I glance over at the movie posters. Death to Smoochie. Spider-Man. The Rocket rounds the corner; a picture of scantily clad Benetton babes greets us commuters as we shuffle inside. At the mall, the ads keep coming. Coke. Pepsi. Levi's. On the escalator, I notice the handrail is painted logo-colours - this ride down is sponsored by a chic automobile manufacturer. I wonder if the air I'm breathing is sponsored by anyone.

It’s 9 a.m. and I’m late for work. I make a beeline for the closest Starbucks, passing giant billboards pasted on the sides of buildings. Gucci. Molson Canadian. On the sleeve of my Guatemala blend there’s an ad for a job recruiting Web site.

Waiting for the streetcar, I glance over at the movie posters. Death to Smoochie. Spider-Man. The Rocket rounds the corner; a picture of scantily clad Benetton babes greets us commuters as we shuffle inside. At the mall, the ads keep coming. Coke. Pepsi. Levi’s. On the escalator, I notice the handrail is painted logo-colours – this ride down is sponsored by a chic automobile manufacturer. I wonder if the air I’m breathing is sponsored by anyone.

In the subway, I slip past the turnstiles painted purple with Winners slogans. The floor is purple as well; you can be a winner, too. I score a seat on the ad-encased train and slip into unconsciousness, where the ads can’t find me.

This is the consumer everyday – bombarded by marketing in the strangest of places – and it’s getting more niche.

TV? Check. Radio? Check. Print, billboards, dogs, hubcaps, umbrellas, gravestones, our skin, maiden names, escalator handrails, the sidewalk. Check. The list goes on.

Born out of the fact that marketers are forced to find new and creative ways to display their messages, everything is fair game as a potential advertising platform. But is this over-saturation of any value?

‘We’ve come up with our own definition of madness,’ declares Martin Thomas, total communications director at Mediaedge:CIA in London, U.K. ‘We are responding to advertising clutter with more clutter. The poor consumer is attacked until he goes to bed. I think it’s pathetic.’

Thomas is an advocate for cleaning up the clutter. He’s spoken at conferences around the world on the subject, most recently at Toronto’s Canadian Media Director’s Council. He believes advertisers should reconsider the apparent ‘market at all costs’ approach of today. An ad in a new, innovative place might be an unspoiled opportunity, but it also might not be valuable.

It’s the value of the message – not the placement – that’s most important.

‘Just because the consumer is there doesn’t mean they want to be captive sponges that eat up whatever rubbish is thrown their way,’ Martin says. ‘It’s time to stop the madness and get real. If you’re not adding value, you are adding clutter.’

For Thomas, the old way just isn’t working anymore. He’s worked with clients to ease the bombardment of their messages, to try to give them value. Recently, he worked with Lego to develop a TV plan. They concluded that persuading parents during the day when the kids are going crazy is ineffective. Instead, the solution was to run the commercial at night when the kids were in bed, a time when the parents were relaxed and more receptive.

In the near future, Thomas predicts, marketers will pay huge premiums to display their messages in one exclusive area. Further, some agencies are now working with behavioural psychologists to learn how people respond to ad clutter. He says economics will soon spark the sea change because clients need to find better ways to reach consumers.

But in the meantime, it’s business as usual – and there are a great number of new platforms in the works.

In the U.K., gravestones are the grim, new medium. A new video game called Shadowman: 2econd Coming, from Glen Cove, N.Y.-based Acclaim Entertainment wants to see tombstones across England covered with ‘Deadverts.’

A release explaining the ghoulish campaign says ‘The company is inviting relatives of the recently deceased to contact them if they are interested in subsidizing the costs associated with death in return for a small advertisement promoting the cult ShadowMan game.’ Acclaim is ‘expecting a rush of enquiries,’ for the promotion, which mounts plaques featuring a skeletal spectre gazing out onto the boneyard as a permanent advertisement.

‘That’s absolutely insane,’ says media buyer Hugh Dow, president of Toronto’s M2 Universal. ‘I find that totally distasteful and offensive.’

Although most would reject creepy cemetery ads, the truth is, boundaries must be tested. Dow recalls when cinema advertising met with feverish boos by spectators, but it was eventually accepted and has proven to be effective.

Even if a marketer finds that new, ground-breaking medium, how do they know if it’s working? Sylvia Criger, managing partner at Toronto’s MBS, says that there’s no concrete way to quantify the success of an ad that’s in a non-traditional place. ‘There’s no numbers that say 2,400 people saw that ad, so you have to go with word-of-mouth. If you don’t hear anything after you’ve tried it and there’s no effect on sales numbers, then it’s probably not working,’ she explains. ‘You really have to go with your intuition, and say to yourself, ‘Hey, maybe this is stupid.”

In early April, New Yorkers experienced barking billboards unleashed by New York-based K9 Billboards. Pooches plastered with ads roamed about Times Square; consumers patted them, fed them cookies and walked away with a marketing message. It did break through. If consumers grow tired of dog-vertising, escalation of the medium could get interesting.

‘It’s like the fire’s getting colder, so I’ll throw more logs on the fire,’ says York University professor of marketing and communications, Alan Middleton. ‘Consumers shut out the extraneous noise of ads and that creates a vicious cycle. Marketers find new ways to advertise and then the idea gets old, so the process starts all over again.’

Canada is not immune to this cycle.

Dunlop Tires offered $25,000 to anyone who would change his or her last name to Dunlop-Tire. By the March 2002 deadline, four people made the switch.

At the Juno Awards, when members of the hip-hop crew Ghetto Concept approached the stage, they were adorned not in tuxedos but in plain white t-shirts that read ‘New Ghetto Concept album in stores soon.’ Some people have resorted to cluttering their skin with tattoos of corporate logos, like professional boxer Bone Adams, who had Golden Palace.com (a Canadian online casino) scrawled on his back.

‘Consumers have really accepted ads in weird places. I don’t think we have to worry about intrusiveness. Advertisers want eyeballs, plain and simple,’ says George Jakji, president of SkyAD Media in Toronto.

His company has struck a partnership with Air Transat to start placing ads on the backs of airline seat food trays, along with product samples and inserts in the seatback pockets. Air Transat’s fleet has over 4,000 spaces available.

Come May 1, travellers will see messages from Rogers Media followed soon by other companies in the automotive, financial and packaged goods sectors. For Jakji, this isn’t clutter; it’s a new opportunity.

‘People laughed at the innovators. Ads in the washroom? People never thought that would work, but look at [Toronto-based] NewAd – now people accept it,’ he says, adding that he expects SkyAD to become an accepted part of any media plan. ‘The image is right in front of you and it becomes interactive. It’s a chance to dominate a captive environment. It’s guaranteed eyeballs.’

Rogers believes airline passengers are the right audience to view their ads.

‘The creative message becomes critical – we don’t want to irritate people,’ says Tom Batho, media director for Rogers AT&T Wireless in Toronto. ‘It’s a different medium and we understand that people will be on a flight from Toronto to Portugal and we don’t want the ads to produce a knee-jerk, ‘Oh my God, get this thing out of my face’ reaction.’

Batho reports that the creative has not been finalized, but the company is ‘sensitive to the possibility’ of travellers loathing the prospect of staring at the same ad for a six-hour flight. One possible solution is to have different ads rotating. ‘We want the creative to be entertaining – to get a wry smile from people. But it also can’t be alienating, and hopefully, it has longevity,’ he says.

Port Perry, Ont.-based Voyager Media hopes for similar results. It would like to see its vision of advertising on escalator handrails succeed. Worldwide, there are at least 200,000 locations available right now in airports, malls and universities. With the potential for more than 200 billion exposures per year, Voyager Media thinks the sky’s the limit.

‘Reaction has been very positive. The 18- to 24 year-olds have called it ‘cool’ and ‘awesome.’ That’s very encouraging; they’re a key category,’ says Tom Rennick, president of Voyager Media, noting that no deals have been secured yet, but the company is close. ‘It can be very subtle – it’s not like the wall of a building that changes the face of an area with one ad. It’s not obtrusive.’

Flanked by the jaded consumer on one side and the zealous marketers on the other, the media buyer is forced to be realistic. ‘What is at issue is where will society draw the line? Is it on a gravestone? What about ads in schools and hospitals?’ asks Bruce Classen, a media buyer for Genesis Media in Toronto. ‘Opportunities are always changing; ads will be placed in every possible medium as long as it is not in poor taste. Sometimes [ad placement] seems a little bizarre, but sometimes it works.’

For Thomas, the decision to go ahead depends solely on the value proposition.

‘If it’s clever, if it’s interesting, if there’s a solid message, I don’t mind.

I’m just worried that we’re bludgeoning ourselves to death with useless clutter,’ he adds. ‘I hope more people start to recognize this problem. The old way isn’t working – companies are throwing out more and more money to reach less and less people. We’ve tried the ubiquitous approach, why don’t we try being smart.’