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And there, and everywhere

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Six years ago, Patrick Dori had a vision. The New Jersey-based entrepreneur remembers that his father, who had passed away a year earlier, came to him in a dream "and gave me the whole idea right there."

That idea, subsequently carried out by the younger Mr. Dori: imprinting beach sand with advertising using a special, steamroller-like machine.

Today, Dori's Beach 'N Billboards Inc. has managed to imprint the state's beaches with as much as 660,000 square feet of Skippy peanut butter and Snapple iced tea ads at a time.

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He's at the forefront of a trend that may be a steamroller in its own right: advertising that pops up in all sorts of places where you wouldn't expect it.

These days, ads are everywhere. They've gone "ambient" - pervasive and all-surrounding. They're on the doors of public-bathroom stalls. They're mounted on slim, billboard-carrying trucks. They're even inside the holes on the golf course.

Advertising messages are also popping up on supermarket floors; on video screens installed in gas pumps; on plastic traps in urinals; and at national monuments and other points of interest, with the aid of powerful projectors.

Commercial messages - estimated to bombard the average American at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 a day - are an environmental pollutant, says Bob Garfield, a columnist for Advertising Age, a leading trade publication.

Mr. Garfield alleges that advertisers are "fouling the receptors of the increasingly skeptical, increasingly annoyed, increasingly disaffected consumer. And to get the same amount of his attention, you have to spend more and more - creating more clutter, necessitating more advertising, and so on into oblivion."

Creativity counts

Few experts disagree with that latter assessment. "Inevitably, ambient advertising will increase," says Richard Rebh, the CEO of FLOORgraphics, a Princeton, N.J.-based company that puts six-foot-square 'adhesive billboards' on the floors of 15,000-plus US retail stores.

"There's such a strong value in having a recognizable brand that advertisers will fight for it, even if the individual effect of the ads diminishes," he adds.

Mr. Rebh, who says he expects his revenues to jump from just $10 million last year to roughly $30 million in 1999, encourages advertisers to be creative with the new medium.

"The first generation of floor ads was pretty much just a bunch of logos slapped down on the aisle," he says. "But that's changing. There was a 'Got Milk' floor ad that looked like a puddle of spilt milk, flanked by an actual milk carton lying on its side. Some shoppers went to find supermarket personnel to point out the 'hazard.'

"It really got noticed. It worked, too: The ad reinforced the notion in customers' minds that they might be running out of milk," increasing sales.

The next generation of floor ads, Rebh predicts, will allow for animated messages, thanks to built-in lights. But don't treat shoppers like "mindless automatons," he tells his clients. "If the attitude of marketers is 'the more we plaster the brand name all over the place, the more people will buy it,' that might backfire."

Backlash - or smiles?

In fact, there is already some serious trepidation among advertising people about the stepped-up barrage of commercial come-ons.

The dreaded ad clutter, along with the fragmentation of traditional media due to cable stations and the Internet, has made selling more daunting than ever before.

Some believe consumer cynicism is at an all-time high, and that deluging people with ever more ads will turn wary consumers into sworn enemies of advertising messages.

Says Jelly Helm, an associate professor at the VCU Adcenter, an advertising school in Richmond, Va.: "Hiding cleverly disguised ads in unexpected nooks and crannies might make people even more irritated. Not just because the messages are intrusive, but because the relentless, almost militaristic assault dehumanizes you - your worth is no longer as a person, but as a consumer."

But other practitioners of advertising, such as Richard Kirshenbaum, the co-founder of New York-based Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, are considerably less alarmed.

Whether or not people notice an ad, and act on its message, is determined in huge part by the ad's likability, he says.

Mr. Kirshenbaum compares advertising to food: "It's all in how it's prepared. Sure, in the ad buffet of life, the table is cluttered with too many dishes giving the consumer too many choices, often of bland, tasteless selections and indigestion. [But] certainly, when a person is full, they can still eat a little more or have dessert if it's truly scrumptious.

Indeed, some consumers are staying at the table and clamoring for more (see story at right).

"The objective is to entice consumers with a real benefit, something they want - information, great products, entertainment, public service," he says.

Relevance counts too, Kirshenbaum finds. His agency once had little stickers promoting Snapple mango-flavored iced tea placed on tens of thousands of mangoes in US supermarkets.

That message elicited smiles from many of the same customers who would probably feel annoyed if their fruit came stickered with an irrelevant ad for, say, Sears, or for what many consider this year's most over-hyped flick, "The Phantom Menace."

By the same token, an airplane banner aimed at beachgoers will likely be better tolerated if the ad is for suntan lotion, rather than for a hardware store, Kirshenbaum says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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