The Train Is Coming. And With It, More Ads

Chris Sheldrake

Nice article in today’s New York Times describing how “THE New York City transit system is adding a new site for advertisements: the interior of subway tunnels” using a solution from Sidetrack Technologies Inc.

Starting next spring with the 42nd Street-Times Square shuttle, passengers will see advertising outside the windows as the train travels between stations. The messages will look rather like jumpy 15-second TV ads.

The tunnel advertising is part of an ambitious Metropolitan Transportation Authority plan to convert much of its real estate into advertising space. In addition to the tunnel ads, it will sell space on turnstiles, digital screens inside stations, projections against subway station walls, and panels on the outside of subway cars.

Advertisers are eager for any new way to capture consumers’ attention. The History Channel, which started to advertise on subway panels this month, wanted to get “buzz not only with viewers and consumers of our content, but buzz within the advertising community and buzz with key business partner influentials in this market,” said Chris Moseley, senior vice president for marketing at the channel.

And the authority wants revenue to help it cover its projected $900 million budget shortfall next year.

“In light of the fiscal difficulties that the M.T.A.’s facing, we have set out to basically look under every rock for ways that we can cut costs and raise revenue,” said Jeremy Soffin, a spokesman for the authority.

But some groups say the extension of advertising space is troubling.

“The subways are not a wholly noncommercial site already,” said Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. “But there’s a big difference between signage and traditional billboards, and the new digital media and turnstile wraps and other innovations.”

Mr. Weissman added, “It just contributes to the overwhelming assault on people and their everyday lives that makes it increasingly challenging to escape commercial messaging.”

While the authority has long sold panels in the trains and billboards at the stations to advertisers, it began converting other parts of stations into advertising space only about a decade ago.

CBS Outdoor, which handles ad space in the stations, began selling entire stations to advertisers about 10 years ago, letting them wrap poles and put graphics on the floors.

More recently, it has offered stairs and the full interior of trains to advertisers for a technique known as a “wrap.”

And this year, it is getting even more creative.

“Advertisers, especially in this environment, are looking to do something different and be noticed,” said Jodi Senese, the executive vice president for marketing for CBS Outdoor. “When something is new, clearly there’s an opportunity to make a big splash,” she said.

This week, the company began testing advertising on a large display, almost the size of a movie screen, mounted above a passageway by the 7 train in Times Square.

Because the New York subway runs 24 hours a day, it is difficult to put ads on the far side of subway tracks. Consequently, CBS is considering projecting images across the track. They will be similar to ads that are projected onto station walls, which CBS began about two years ago. There is a projection ad for Asics in Union Square, in the passageway between the N, Q, R and W lines and the Lexington Avenue line, and one for the Navy at Grand Central, in the corridor to the shuttle.

Both the arms of turnstiles and the entire turnstile structures are available to advertisers.

And starting in 2009, CBS will sell advertisers exterior panels — thinner versions of the horizontal advertisements that buses carry — on the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and shuttle trains. These panels are already in place on some 1, 3, 4, 7 and shuttle trains, where the History Channel is the first advertiser to use them. It is promoting its “Cities of the Underworld” series.

The History Channel, owned by A&E Television Networks, also covered the exterior of the Times Square shuttle with advertising, which the transportation authority is considering allowing for other advertisers.

The channel’s media agency, Horizon Media, worked with CBS to persuade the transportation authority to allow the panels and exterior wrap, even creating a miniature model of the shuttle to show authority officials how it would look.

“We’re not just marketing the show in a traditional way, we’re creating an immersive kind of experience,” Ms. Moseley said. The tunnel ads are scheduled to be installed by spring 2009, and will be handled by SideTrack Technologies, a company in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It lines subway tunnels with strips of light-emitting diodes that are window height.

“We have a way of projecting multiple images on the side of a tunnel wall as a train moves from one station to the next station,” said Rob Walker, the president of SideTrack. The company shows about 360 images over a 15-second period and times the display of the images to the speed of a given train.

Mr. Walker compared it to a children’s flip book, where static images in rapid succession give the impression of movement.

“It’s just basic animation, but we can manipulate the images, we can change the ads, so every train that goes by can see a different ad,” he said.

The windows light up as if there were a television screen outside the window. SideTrack installed the system in the Los Angeles and London subways this year, and retailers including Target, Microsoft and Warner Brothers have used it.

An earlier version of the system, which uses printed panels instead of L.E.D. projections, is being used in Boston and San Francisco. Those require that workers go into the tunnels to put up the panels, which makes the ads difficult to install and change.

It will probably cost around $95,000 for a full month of ads in a tunnel, Mr. Walker said, but said that advertisers could book the system for short-term projects.

Mr. Koenigsberg of Horizon said that a prime outdoor billboard usually costs six figures, “so that kind of number doesn’t sound out of whack.”

He said he was interested in the tunnel advertising technology, but would want to ensure that subway riders wanted to see moving ads during their rides.

“The last thing you want to do is have inefficient waste in putting a message in front of someone where they’re not receptive to it,” he said.


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