Cab ads rolling out in Toronto

You have a few options where you could direct your gaze while sitting in the back of a taxi cab: at the concrete jungle landscape of your home town, at the driver I.D. on the back of the seat, or, even more stimulating, at the back of your kindly driver's head. Lately, companies have been tinkering with ways to fill those 10 minutes of understimulated passenger time with advertising.
While some taxis have featured televisions in Las Vegas, London and Singapore, none have used the sophisticated Global Positioning System (GPS) to convey their information. GPS offers a package of location-based advertising, music and event information that gives the cab rider more options than looking at the cab fee ticker, and also provides marketers with endless advertising possibilities.

You have a few options where you could direct your gaze while sitting in the back of a taxi cab: at the concrete jungle landscape of your home town, at the driver I.D. on the back of the seat, or, even more stimulating, at the back of your kindly driver’s head. Lately, companies have been tinkering with ways to fill those 10 minutes of understimulated passenger time with advertising.

While some taxis have featured televisions in Las Vegas, London and Singapore, none have used the sophisticated Global Positioning System (GPS) to convey their information. GPS offers a package of location-based advertising, music and event information that gives the cab rider more options than looking at the cab fee ticker, and also provides marketers with endless advertising possibilities.

In July, Toronto-based toMarket, which provides the GPS advertising service in taxis, began a pilot project with Beck Taxi in Toronto and installed the systems in 25 cabs. It plans to have 250 more installed by October. There are about 20 nationally branded advertisers on board, such as Molson and MasterCard Canada, as well as 100 smaller local advertisers, such as restaurants and clubs.

The GPS system is installed in the trunk of the cab, while the touchscreen display is on the back of the taxicab passenger seat. There are general loop ads and location-based ads where companies can buy geographic blocks of space in the city – so if the cab is on a certain street, the company that owns the block will have their advertising displayed. Such advertisers as Molson, for example, could run their ads outside of big restaurants or bars where their product is available, says David Shaw, co-founder of toMarket, who notes the service is about ‘influencing behaviour at the point-of-sale.’

‘Anything that is location-specific is powerful in moving forward,’ adds Mark Sherman, president and CEO of media buying firm Media Experts in Toronto and Montreal. ‘The closer to the point-of-sale we can make an impression, the better impression it’ll be. It’s a captive environment in a taxi cab.’

Shaw says the system can accommodate whatever creative the advertiser has – whether video or slide format. By October, the equipment will have wireless capabilities and thus, debit payment will be available, along with other options for advertisers. For example, Famous Players, one of toMarket’s advertisers, could potentially sell tickets to movies in the cabs for late-arriving moviegoers.

The cost to advertisers to show a general loop ad in the 25 cabs over the six-month pilot is $3,000, which garners 200,000 exposures, says Shaw. A location-based ad, sort of like virtual real estate, currently runs from about $200 to $400 for six months, depending on the location within the city. Ads generally run for 10 seconds, but the company can accommodate up to 30-second spots, or whatever the client needs, according to toMarket CEO Justin Belobaba.

MasterCard Canada signed on with toMarket two months ago and is currently running ads from their ‘priceless’ print campaign in the form of slide-frames in the taxis as part of the pilot. A version of the ads, which features a push for movie-going, includes the prices for tickets, popcorn and soda, and ends with the slogan, ‘An empty seat in front of you…priceless.’ It will be rolled outside of movie theaters, says Tim Evans, marketing project manager for MasterCard Canada. MasterCard wanted to highlight venues where the card is accepted, and Evans also notes they want to reach people who are out and spending money.

Walt Macnee, president of Master-Card, says he’s always on the look-out for intriguing new media to advertise in and the GPS system fits the bill. Macnee hopes to pursue the promotional aspect of the system by offering deals at certain restaurants for MasterCard users. There’s always a risk of oversaturating an audience with advertising, he adds. But, ‘if it was just an advertising reel, I don’t think it would be meaningful and could be seen as intrusive.’

Currently, toMarket’s systems offer music sponsored by radio stations – when the passenger selects a type of music, whether urban, country or pop, an ad pops up to plug the station. Shaw says the music option, using MP3s, will likely be phased out in October due to licensing issues. More importantly, when the system goes wireless, advertisers will be able to incorporate sound in their ads. Local sports and community information is currently displayed, along with event listings – compiled in conjunction with the City of Toronto’s tourism department. A live news feed will be added in October as well, and toMarket is in talks with TorStar, among others, to supply the content.

ToMarket has generally had to directly solicit companies to get them to advertise. ‘With a new medium, agencies tend to be averse,’ says Shaw. ‘They don’t want to jeopardize their job. It’s easier to stick with proven results.’

Tony Chapman, partner at ad agency Capital C Communications, joined toMarket’s board a month ago. The Toronto agency introduced MasterCard Canada to the company and they have another client potentially lined up for the service.

Chapman says he’s utilized a similar method of advertising – elevator ads – and has found it effective with its ability to change a message quickly and to stimulate proximity advertising. He adds that there are two markets for this kind of advertising: beer and soft drink companies who can promote their brands, as well as provide added incentives such as discount coupons; and location-based brands or companies who want to advertise that their products or services are available in the vicinity of the cab.

A similar service to the one toMarket offers, with television advertising in taxis – but without the GPS system – was employed by Cynthia Fleming, VP, Client Services for Media Experts in Toronto. Fleming used the method in Las Vegas taxis to promote Alias Wavefront’s Maya software to target attendees of last April’s convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. Maya, a software used in commercial production, would specifically appeal to convention delegates.

A 60-second commercial spot advertised the product and was played twice in a twelve-minute loop during the week of the convention in cabs that traveled along the strip past the convention site. Since Alias is a forward-thinking company, says Fleming, it wanted a unique way to promote its product to people in the industry. She says that anecdotally, participants responded positively to the spots. ‘It’s a fresh way to see the message,’ says Fleming. ‘A billboard doesn’t have the same creative platform.’

Chapman sees the GPS-powered taxi ad service as a win-win situation for everyone involved. For the taxi passenger, he says, they can see where the car is going courtesy of a GPS-map on the screen, and get the best value for their cab ride. Passengers can view ads and information and get value-added offers. He says even the cab driver benefits by providing a better all-around service and may in turn get a better tip.

Chapman says he doesn’t think there’s a risk of turning consumers off with in-taxi TV screen advertising. ‘There was a risk with putting ads before films,’ he says. ‘But if the ads are entertaining, it’s better than silence.’

Dan Stiavnicky, director of digital media for Spencer Francey Peters in Toronto, says there’s always the option for people to look out the window if they don’t like what they see. Stiavnicky says the informational capabilities of the medium are beneficial, as long as the information provided has some value, such as news or weather. ‘I think it has benefits – particularly for people coming from out of town,’ he says. ‘It could be used as a live tour guide.’

Cabs have a mandate that they have to be able to offer a silent ride to the customer, should they ask for it. Shaw says he hasn’t heard of any requests to turn off the audio or the system itself.

Beck Taxi driver Farid Hamid, who has had the GPS system in his cab for a few months, says he’s only received positive feedback from cab customers about them. ‘People like it,’ says Hamid. ‘It keeps them busy.’