All the world's a billboard

It begins as a routine trip tp the ATM. You punch in your password, check your balances on the screen display, and make a withdrawal.

But then the machine prints out your receipt, and all the familiar certainties end. Instead of the usual six-inch slip of paper, this one is eight inches long. To your astonishment, the back features a colorful ad for a budget motel chain, complete with a perforated coupon offering a discount. Just try fitting this longer receipt in your wallet or pocket without folding. No way.

Welcome to the aggressive world of nonstop advertising, where every blank space, however small, now ranks as a prime target for marketers.

Even major league baseball teams are considering selling advertising on players' uniforms, possibly in the form of small patches on the sleeves.

And last week USA Today announced that it will run ads at the bottom of its front page, beginning in October. The move makes it one of the first major newspapers in the US to print display ads on Page 1.

Shakespeare's observation that "All the world's a stage" could be updated for the 21st century to read, "All the world's a billboard." From tiny stickers on bananas and apples to city buses painted from bumper to bumper with ads for everything from movies to doughnuts, the insistent message of a consumer culture is inescapable: Buy, buy, buy.

It is this inescapability, in fact, that makes some of these unconventional ads so annoying. Open a menu at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant in California, for example, and you'll find pages listing food selections interspersed with full-page ads for cosmetic surgery, clothing, and real estate.

A gas station near Boston displays an ad for candy on the pump handle. While music plays at the pump, a recorded voice suggests that customers go inside the station and buy - what else? - some candy.

At a supermarket checkout counter in the Midwest, a colorful computer screen lists each item as the cashier rings it up. But the store couldn't resist placing commercials on the screen as well: "Try our rotisserie chicken for dinner tonight!"

A suburban multiplex theater features a swirling light in the lobby that projects ads for soft drinks and food onto the floor and walls. Children love it.

Toll-booth receipts on the Massachusetts Turnpike come with ads attached. And thanks to something called "sonic branding," even pay-phone customers now hear commercials.

Is no place to be spared, and is nothing sacred? What happens when everything is for sale, and when the enslavement to profit blights every available inch of the landscape?

A colleague calls this ubiquitous advertising an "invasion." He registered his own protest against the ads on ATM receipts by changing banks.

The partial good news is that the bank has restored its receipts to their normal size. The bad news is that they still contain ads and tiny coupons.

In George Orwell's futuristic "1984," posters warning that "Big Brother Is Watching You" are "plastered everywhere." In far more subtle ways, clever and opportunistic advertisers are conveying a similar message today: "Big Brother Marketer is following you, wherever you go."

What's the solution? Passivity and silence signal acceptance. Perhaps it's time to form a chorus delivering a loud message: Enough already! And to demand a few ad-free zones. A quaint sign from the past suddenly seems modern and relevant: "Post No Bills" - not even little ones, cleverly tucked on the back of receipts, on the front page of newspapers, or on the sleeves of baseball players' uniforms.

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