Byline: Sharon Edelson
Is outdoor advertising losing its creative edge, or has the multitude of messages — stationary and moving — made it impossible to break through the clutter?
Industry experts believe a combination of both has taken some of the punch out of the once provocative medium.
Take bus advertising, for example. While innovation ruled in the Eighties, a more formulaic approach now seems common. Some observers believe bus advertising has hit a bumpy stretch of road and that oversaturation has made it difficult to distinguish one bus ad from another.
Indeed, most of the telephone kiosks and nearly all of the 5,000 buses in the New York metropolitan area carry advertising messages, according to Don Allman, executive vice president and general manager of TDI, which manages the bus concessions here.
Street advertising is no longer the novelty it was when George Lois, the dean of gonzo advertising, created a billboard-and-kiosk campaign in 1982 for Tommy Hilfiger, then a little-known men’s wear designer.
“The four great American designers for men are: P — — – E — — -, C — — K — — -, R — — L — — – and T — — – H — — -,” read the ad copy, referring to Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Hilfiger. It appeared on a giant poster on Seventh Avenue, got plenty of attention and managed to upset the people at Ellis, Klein and Lauren.
“If you’re going to go into the street, you have to be exciting and raise some hell,” Lois said. “I still love telephone kiosks, painted boards and buses. I think that’s kick-ass. It’s the closest thing you can get to guerrilla warfare.”
Unfortunately, said Lois, not many advertisers raise hell these days.
Lynn Seid, president of Partners & Shevack, said bus advertising is simply going through the usual growing pains.
“Every 10 years, as a medium comes to fruition, people complain about the clutter,” Seid said. “It puts a higher demand on the creative content to break through. This is true of stadium advertising, and almost any outside medium that somebody passes by, rides or looks at.”
“When we first started using it eight or 10 years ago, it wasn’t out there in the way that it is now, so you looked at it and you took notice,” said John Amodeo, a partner in Amodeo/Petti. “What’s happened is that everyone has begun to use it, and because of the limited format, all of it looks exactly alike. You don’t know if you’re looking at Donna Karan or Calvin Klein. The format has become a formula. They just stick a picture into the formula, so it’s not used as creatively.”
“The nature of the space has its limitations because it’s a very horizontal format, so you’re left to manipulating your creative to fit the format,” said Charles DeCaro, a partner in Laspata/DeCaro, which has created bus campaigns for Kenar, INC and Alfani.
For Kenar’s first campaign, DeCaro used the same photo in different colorations, a la Andy Warhol. For the second, DeCaro capsuled the campaign with six photos. “They were able to tell the entire story,” DeCaro said.
“INC is very eye-catching,” he said, referring to the ad that features model Elsa Benitez on a black background and a white background. “It really does pop. It has to be something that works graphically and grabs your attention.”
“They’re mostly very engaging,” said Paula Brooks, a managing partner in Margeotes, Fertitta & Partners, an ad agency here, describing bus ads. “Some of the fashion companies really use them quite brilliantly. CK Calvin Klein underwear ads had panels of photographs that worked well. It looked like they created the ads for that format.”
Brooks also likes Banana Republic’s ad with photos of couples rolling around on the ground in one picture, looking totally tousled in another.
“It makes a statement, it’s big and it’s bold,” Brooks added. “If you have a horizontal image you want to convey, it’s a great canvas. It has some staying power. It gives you the ability to look like you’re every place because you are every place.”
But a new rule passed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board could further impinge upon creativity.
“The rule gives us the right to limit the type of advertising we accept,” an MTA spokesman said. “We will not accept ads for dating services or computer chat lines, for instance. This is similar to when we eliminated cigaret ads. We would not accept Calvin Klein ads because they would be deemed offensive. We’re dealing with large, large numbers of children.”
The spokesman was referring to 1995 CK Jeans ads, which some said seemed to mimic home-made child porn and were the subject of an inquiry by the Justice Department that found no wrongdoing on Klein’s part.
Still, despite the challenges, there is optimism that a new wave of creativity will breathe new life into bus advertising.
Buses wrapped in copy and illustrations, a relatively recent phenomenon that involves covering a bus with printed shrink wrap, have injected some new life into the genre. According to TDI’s Allman, at any given time there are between 75 and 100 fully wrapped buses circulating throughout New York.
“It’s only a small part of our overall business, but it’s growing,” he said. “In the early Nineties, fully wrapped buses brought in no revenue. This year, they will generate $8 million to $10 million in ad revenue in the U.S.”
Those buses, which look as though they have been painted, are generally used to highlight a campaign, Allman said, adding, “A company will buy one or two fully wrapped buses while buying a program of posters on 300 or 400 or 600 buses.”
But some critics call the loud, brightly colored “admobiles” eyesores that are all style and no substance.
“I think it’s gross,” said Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, an ad agency here. “It’s purely visual and has very little concept behind it. You can’t really sell hard, it’s just kind of in your face. It’s getting to be a little much. Even I have some limits.”
However, one man’s eyesore is another man’s art. Amodeo said, “There’s impact when the whole bus is painted. It’s breaking out of the formula. Here’s a whole moving billboard. The impact is there, and you can’t help but notice who the advertiser is and what they’re saying.”
But Donald Ziccardi, president of Ziccardi & Partners, a New York ad agency, said clutter is not bad if the medium has its own cachet.
“With the buses, that’s what’s happened,” he said. “People expect to be informed and entertained while waiting for a bus or taxi.”
The same holds true for billboards.
“Look at Times Square,” Ziccardi said. “Five or 10 years ago, outdoor advertising had lost a lot of its luster. When fashion advertisers began using billboards, the cachet of outdoor changed, and that has brought about the clutter in Times Square.
“In the frenzy, it has become prestigious to have a billboard in the Times Square area,” he added. “Prices are going through the roof. You could pay $30,000 to $140,000 a month for some of those boards.”
So precious has billboard space in Times Square become, a single space on the north side of One Times Square — the side where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve — fetches $2 million a year, making the building the most expensive signpost in the world.
Newer venues may be moving in on buses and billboards.
Painted walls, which have been popping up throughout the city with ads for Samsung, Continental, Fila and Donna Karan, are currently hot, said Brooks.
“I love walls, but they’re more permanent,” she added. “You repaint walls one or two times a year. You almost have to scour the city and find out who sells space on a building or owns the building, and if it’s paintable.”
“There are going to be more and more buildings available as building sites realize the revenue potential in giving up a wall and having it painted,” observed Seid. “There’s so much prime real estate on the sides of buildings, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that.”
Another potential new vehicle for advertisers is the space above store facades. “Bijan was first to do that,” Seid said. “You could have a billboard about your own retail establishment right above your store. A lot more can be done on the vertical edifices in cities around America.”
However, many neighborhoods have ordinances restricting signs on buildings. Tom Cusick, president of the Fifth Avenue Association, said the Bijan billboard was temporary.
“The company received a permit for the billboard as part of a construction permit to repair damage caused by a fire on the second floor,” he said. “Once the work was done and the permit expired, Bijan took it down.”
Moving billboards — narrow trucks wrapped with high-resolution images — are perfectly legal and becoming ubiquitous in the city.
Elan Nissim, who designs the Elan Nissim Collection, uses the moving billboard company he owns, Montage Sound Moving Billboards, to advertise the ready-to-wear line.
“I made $8 million in the first year because of the moving billboards,” Nissim said. “I went to different companies and they charged $90,000 a month. We charge $22,000 a month.”
Nissim said the 10-by-22-foot trucks supply music and operate 10 hours a day, five days a week.
Advertisers are always looking for unusual places for their ads — messengers’ bikes and coffee carts, for example.
Earlier this year, ads began popping up on sidewalk carts that sell coffee, bagels and pastries, courtesy of Brilliant Image Outdoor, which has a contract to place ads on the city’s 500 coffee carts. So far, the Fox network and Working Mother have used the carts.
“The coffee carts are not particularly attractive,” said Craig Kalter, president of Brilliant Image. “By dressing them up with ads, they look nice.”
“The bike messengers and coffee carts are starting to get too cluttered,” DeCaro said. “You’re bombarded with too many visuals outdoors. The bus, in and of itself, works. It is a moving vehicle. Next, there will be ads on light posts. Then it becomes, ‘Let’s stick something wherever we can make a buck.”‘