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As Advertisers race to cover every available surface, are they DRIVING US INSANE?

Carrie McLaren | Issue #18

It’s July 12, 2000. A rocket bearing Pizza Hut’s logo launches into space. And that evening, on NBC’s Nightly News, a wide-eyed advertising exec is telling the nation about an exciting new ad medium. Not the ad stickers on bananas (so 1996). Not the slogans imprinted on beach sands (ditto). Not the cell phone pitches on tabletops, or the sailing billboard, or the Volkswagon "autowraps," which can turn your everyday car into an advertising vehicle. No, she’s talking about–get this!–elevator commercials. That’s television in the elevator! There’ll be no more agonizing wait on the lift to the office. "People actually miss their floors," enthuses the rep. "They get so engrossed in the story!"

Chances are, however, that the people she’s referring are advertisers and their clients. Most humans, even those who loved the Chihauhau, are markedly less thrilled about the prospect of yet another new ad medium. People approach these ads in one of two ways: either by ignoring them, or making a game of it by trying to figure out what could possibly be next. Ads on toilets? Gas pumps? Rooftops? The vertical edges of stair steps? Considering ads already adorn all the above, it is essentially a game of no contest. Perhaps the only real challenge would be to find spaces without advertising. Credit cards, ATM receipts, sports stadiums, hotel keys, even the bottom of the each hole on the golf course–no space is left unscathed.

Naturally, advertisers aren’t limited by physical surfaces (or lack thereof). Broadcast Team in Ormond Beach, Florida, specializes in telemarketing geared to answering machines. The company hires celebrities to record a pitch–Dick Clark for American Music Awards; Michael Bolton for his new album–which is then left as a "personal" message: "Hi, this is Dick Clark. I’m sorry to reach you at home, but I just wanted to call your attention to a television special . . ."

Nor are advertisers constrained by laws. "Street blimps" (large, flat, billboards-on-wheels) drive around cities such as Manhattan, despite ordinances banning them. Companies spraypaint ads on sidewalks and streetposts, and indulge in equally illegal "wild posting." The fines paid by transgressors–usually a fraction of what legit advertising costs–are prefigured in the budget. Last year, Reebok painted over 200 "mini-billboards" on sidewalks in downtown Manhattan. The company was required to pay only $11,000 in cleanup costs. By comparison, advertising on 200 phone booths during that period would have cost over $400,000.

The catch-all trade term for such new new advertising is "ambient," or, as the British call it, the "pavement and urinals" category. Although it has been around for decades, the category has exploded in recent years. And this year is expected to be the biggest yet, with promises of canned fragrances (Digicents’ "Snortal," touted as "the world’s first scent-enabled Web portal") and Radio Shack’s sponsorship of a robot on the moon.

Advertisers cite several reasons for the explosion of ambient. Soaring network television rates coupled with declining audiences (particularly generations X and Y) and increased competition from internet and cable outlets have made it difficult to blanket a brand message like the old days. A booming economy fueled with dot-com money added to the ad glut. And the desire to microtarget people at precisely timed moments all make ambient the "it" form.

What these explanations miss, however, is that the forces behind ambient are inherent in the advertising process. Advertising works somewhat like bacteria: After its hosts (consumers) are exposed, they become immune, so new strains of ads must develop and grow. These new strains are quickly copied, adding clutter, requiring new strains to emerge. Over time, advertising clutter leads to diminishing returns for individual campaigns. The more advertising grows, the more it must grow. The cycle accelerates and what was formerly considered unethical, offensive, or gauche is gradually mainstreamed out of necessity.

Take bathrooms for example. When Zoom Media, a company that places advertising in restaurant and club bathrooms, launched ten years ago, the category faced "the toilet syndrome"–no company wanted to promote its brand near the crapper. The promise of reaching a captive, targeted audience eventually made converts, though. While Zoom’s revenues in 1991 totaled $40,000, that figure grew to $12 million in 1999. Perhaps the most significant growth, however, is the form the ads take. Initially limited to posters on stall doors and walls, bathroom advertising has gone hi-tech with CD-ROMs and audio. The content of these ads has likewise become more, uh, ambitious. A new ABC-TV campaign speaks to men through the urinal, telling jokes like: "Oh my God, look at the size of that thing!’’ and "Hey, watch your shoes!" A recent men’s room campaign for Kozmo advises, "That Girl’s a bitch. Why don’t you go home and rent a movie?"

Similarly, ads have spread to territories formerly kept in check by some vestige of ethics: school buses and textbooks, historical monuments, doctor’s offices, even whole cities. Sacramento, California, calls its corporate sponsorship plan "Capital Spirit." In Manhattan, trees along 23rd Street are adorned with Old Navy logos. It’s no surprise, then, that "ambient" advertising is also known as "ad creep," a word that single-handedly suggests both advertising’s growth and its creators. And though the term, like ambient, is new, its roots run deep.

In 1759, Samuel Johnson wrote in The Idler that "Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused." This was over a century before anything that could be considered an advertising industry existed, but almost as soon as it did (by the 1910s and 20s) ad men warned of "saturation" or what is now called "clutter." The key difference between then and now is that, formerly, the media used by advertising–newspapers, radio, television–were commonly understood to be public goods. Ad men felt obligated (if only out of legal concerns) to keep public interests in mind. The new breed of ad "creatives" are not nearly so encumbered, giddily promoting their ability to reach a "captive audience" with "forced media."

Incidentally, said selling point also happens to be one of main problems, as critics see it: people can’t get away from this stuff. In April 2000, Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, sent a letter to ad agencies inquiring: "Do you recognize any place to be off-limits to advertising? In your view, where should your industry draw the line?" He received no response. Advertisers have the freedom to advertise, apparently, but you aren’t free to avoid it.

Not that you would want to. To hear the marketers tell it, advertising is a gift, relieving you of the agony of a reflective moment, that fifteen seconds of waiting for your cash at the ATM. The Outdoor Advertising Association of American calls billboards the "art gallery of the roadways and the theater of the streets." (The same organization once published a study showing that billboards improve safety by preventing driver "mild disorientation" and "excessive fantasy formation.")

Advertisers insist the response to ambient ads is "tremendous" (Zoom Media), "overwhelmingly positive" (beachnbillboard.com), that ambient ads are "hot and chic . . . cool and hip" (Starcom Worldwide), and that criticisms are minimal: a few grumpy ATM customers here and there. At the same time, they recognize that ad fatigue is real. People are said to see upwards of 3,000 ads a day, and tuning out most of them is necessary to stay functional. The Wall Street Journal reported that following a Coca-Cola-sponsored racing event that was littered with Coke signs, giant inflatable Coke bottles, and a Coke logo covering the middle of the race track, only one-third of the attendees could name Coke as the sponsor.

Advertising is, to some extent, a victim of its own success. And to maintain the same level of success, it evades public criticism by rendering that criticism moot–by blanketing the environment so that there is no escape. In so doing, ambient’s biggest impact may, ironically, be the most invisible. In the same way that advertising determines what people will or won’t see on the news, ambient advertisers aim to control what they will or won’t see outside, at work, or wherever.

Far from shying away from this dystopic vision, corporations embrace it. Compac chose ATMs and elevators for its recent "Non Stop" ad campaign because, according to one spokesman, "We wanted to send a message that we’re everywhere, that we’re unstoppable."

A guerrilla campaign for CFRB, a Toronto talk radio station, was even more direct. CFRB’s ad agency Roche Macaulay & Partners Advertising told Strategy, "We wanted [the campaign] to become part of the cityscape–a universal thing like homelessness and crime that everyone has an opinion about." So Roche Macaulay blanketed Toronto with signs bearing such questions as: "How far away do you think the nearest crack house is?" and "Could you live on this street corner for a week?" After at least one billboard drew angry calls from residents, Roche Macaulay cheered. Apparently, when people complain, it shows they’re awake and consciously viewing the brand.

Even better than merely saturating the environment is getting people to interact with it. Floorgraphics, a company that places "adhesive billboards" on grocery store floors, designed a "Got Milk?" ad to look like a puddle of spilt milk, complete with an actual milk carton lying on its side. Unwitting supermarket shoppers would hunt down store employees to point out the "hazard."

Such tactics may seem innocuous (even funny) as isolated incidents; the problems are only apparent when ads are multiplied by thousands and constantly force-fed to the public.

"There’s a negative correlation between all that advertising hoopla and interesting ideas we can create ourselves," says longtime Village Voice ad columnist Leslie Savan. Incessant advertising, she adds, "drains us and depresses our ability to think that life can be fun and interesting outside of what corporate culture brings. It’s as if the color has drained out of our brains onto the signs on the floor."

With this in mind, maybe the future of advertising calls for a new game. As Savan suggests, our minds and spirits are the ultimate media for sale. Left unchecked, ad glut will only worsen, and any downtime people have in between absorbing media messages will be defined as waste. Thus, rather than measuring ad growth by fruit stickers and gas pumps, we should start looking at IQ points and pulse rates. Once every conceivable surface has been taken, advertising’s growth can come only at the expense of our own.