Monday, December 10, 2007

Advertising amok

Every time I see an insidious new form of advertising invading daily life, I think, "That's bad. No placement could top that." I thought that more than six years ago when I went to the bathroom at a good Thai restaurant in downtown Chicago and found myself confronted by a giant poster on the back of the stall door touting what I think was an unmentionable woman's product (you see, I've tried to forget). In the men's room, my English visitor found an ad for Men's Health magazine. Then and there I thought, "Surely no one in advertising can get lower, er, more creative than this."

With so much "information overload," as they call it, overwhelming potential customers, advertisers are openly desperate to get noticed. It's not enough that every bus and taxi is a motorized billboard; the next obvious step was to come up with vehicles whose sole purpose was to serve as mobile advertisements. I have no doubt that some organizations that tout their environmental and conservation responsibility and awareness use these "moving billboards" use these gas-guzzling carbon spewers in the hope that someone will see and remember them.

So, when I saw the little screens attached to the escalators at the San Antonio International Airport, I should not have been surprised. Yet I was. My first thought was, "Is there anything surface left to which advertising clutter can't be attached?" Bathroom stalls, the tops of escalators, human skin—what next? Ads strapped onto dogs walking in the park?

Later, the real absurdity of it occurred to me. First, almost everyone in an airport is in a hurry. Nearly everyone who's not an employee is a passenger trying to get to a flight on time. The only people with time to spare are those whose flights are delayed, and they are usually stuck at the gate. People leaving the airport usually want to pick up their checked baggage as quickly as possible and meet their parties or get to their transportation. So who is going to stop, stand at the head of an escalator, and assimilate a commercial that is probably irrelevant to their needs? We don't even watch commercials on TV at home, where we're not in a rush to be somewhere else. Why would we stare at an escalator when the more logical choice is to get on it—and move away from the ad? I suppose some people passing by might stop for a moment, perhaps for the novelty, but I doubt anyone is going to watch anything less compelling than a scene from a hit movie, TV show, or video, and then only for a few seconds.

In my imagination, however, I can picture how the agency sold this concept to the client: "Thousands of people pass through airports every day! That's XX million a year! And they're a captive audience because they have to be at the airport—they can't help but see your message!" The client, a desperate marketing person under pressure to generate leads and sales, succumbs to the presentation because the chances are good that print, television, radio, and other traditional media are declining in effectiveness, and anything that offers access to millions of potential impressions could be worth a shot.

At this point, I thought escalator commercials would fill my quota of bizarre placements for at least a few months. I was wrong. Thursday night I stopped at Walgreens, where, splayed over the security scanners at the entrance/exit, are cardboard sandwich boards touting a teeth-whitening product. Aha! What better way to get attention than with a five-foot ad for an impulse purchase product, an ad that assails customers both on the way in and on the way out—two points in time at which I can be made to feel shame over my aging, yellowing teeth.

But the evening was still young. Next, I went to the grocery store, where the floor tiles sport ads. If you drop your shopping list or bend down to check on your small child, you'll see a colorful reminder of which brand of baked beans is best. These ads don't bother me, perhaps they are an opportunity to walk all over advertising.

I was absorbed in looking for something in particular when I heard a voice. Obviously, a voice in a store isn't unusual; customers talk on their mobile phones; customers and employees chat with one another; and announcements are made over the public address system ("Will the owner of a blue Ford SUV move the vehicle from the fire lane?"). This voice, however, was different. It was small, it was tinny, and it was talking at me. I turned around, and there it was—a tiny screen with a woman promoting the benefits of a brand found in that aisle.

I don't know what advertisers will do next to top themselves. I don't want to know, but I'm sure to find out. I can say this, though; the insides of my eyelids are not for sale, and that's what I prefer to look at when you try too hard to get my attention.

And thank goodness for earplugs.

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