Print ads can't keep up with the morning train — or school bus

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:25 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This summer, I worked in Chicago as a publishing assistant at an independent magazine. My goal at Stop Smiling was to help chase down advertising. Advertisers wanted us to be multimedia producers, a storefront, mobile party planners, or, as Publisher J.C. Gabel put it, "everything but a good magazine." Part of my proposal to Asics was a horizontal reflective strip that ran across the front of our offices. In the middle of the strip would be their newest shoe, so that passers-by who slowed to check out the magazine could "try on" an Asics shoe as well. Truly the stuff of great journalism.

I can't blame advertisers for their infidelity to print ads. Even a full-page glossy ad is just a piece of paper. The physical capabilities of a display ad are limited to 3D glasses in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue and cologne flaps in lifestyle magazines. Stop Smiling, an independent bi-monthly, isn't the only publication suffering; Rolling Stone's ad pages were down more than 32 percent in the first quarter. The "community" a magazine says it creates, the "tastemakers" we claim to influence and the "coffee-table book" our magazine "doubles as" is mostly media-kit speak.

Instead of buying paper in Stop Smiling, Asics purchased sponsorship rights at Lollapalooza. Other brands paid for stage names and the ability to co-opt language. Lollapalooza attendees were forced to say, "Meet you in front of the AT&T stage for Kanye" or "Blues Traveler is playing at MySpace at 5:15." Ralph Lauren, Weber Grills and ING Direct bypassed some media buying and event sponsorship by starting their own restaurants and a café, respectively, in downtown Chicago.

Speech control and madras-print meatballs instead of back page and inside cover: Scary, right? Maybe. But, to me, the most worrisome threat to the magazine ad is a billboard.

Our ad there

Billboards don't create community or literally interact with the consumer, but they are not, as Stephanie Clifford of The New York Times puts it, "For the most part  ... a relic of old-world media ... ." They are a part of the present and, unfortunately for magazines, have serious implications on the future of media buying. Billboards and other out-of-home advertising will increasingly saturate roads and cities, appear as Exhibit "A" in First Amendment cases and siphon off display-ad dollars.

As audiences continue to splinter across the explosion of Web pages, they mostly commute on the same trains, walk the same blocks and drive the same roads as before the Internet. Digital content may be able to replace what was once a print monopoly; multiple Web sites can substitute for the sections of a publication; a former Chicago magazine reader can skip the subscription, get restaurant advice off, search downtown apartments on or pick up a free Chicago Reader.

But there's no substitute for a physical city or a suburban traffic pipeline. A billboard at the intersection of Chicago's Division and Dearborn streets can't be depreciated by a Google map of the same location. There's little risk of wasting money on a 48-by-14-foot SKYY Vodka bulletin because a potential "tastemaker" can't spill coffee on it, leave it stacked on the nightstand or lose it before he leaves the post office.  Nielsen ratings of an elevated train with conductor-to-caboose iPod ads aren't affected by niche publications such as Model Railroader and Garden Railways. No blogger can WordPress the Blue Line.

The train advertisement is spectacularly, and eerily, effective. At Lollapalooza, brands co-opted language through the stage names, but the elevated advertisement co-opts thought, and in much larger numbers. When a commuter thinks about taking the train, pictures the train, she will not be able to separate it from the image of a dancing iPod listener. Her daily routine now includes making sure she's on time for the iPod, wishing the iPod would hurry up and then, literally, stepping through the doors of an iPod advertisement onto the train which doesn't yet have Apple branding on its seats.

Unless mass media starts moonlighting in mass transit, how can they offer anything comparable to the Chicago Transit Authority's messaging platform? Vanity Fair's media kit claims the magazine is a "cultural catalyst." The transit authority's media kit might read "capitalist catalyst." And, since a train's credibility depends on punctuality, not objectivity or autonomy, there are no issues with advertising on its cover.

A billboard's audience is still difficult to pin down, though, and passers-by probably won't be filling out questionnaires any time soon. But, as Clifford reports, cameras are now being embedded in billboards to provide viewer information.

Complementing the coffers

While billboard ads can steal cash from magazines, they can also help attract revenue for public good, or companies can trade a service for brand visibility. In Time Magazine, Daniel Eisenberg highlights some bottled-water benevolence on the part of Evian. The company fixed up a public pool outside London and made sure to leave its imprint on the pool floor, which was visible for Heathrow's plane passengers.

The Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona has been placing ads on its buses since 2005 to complement tax revenue. Director of Transportation Dan Shearer said there was little opposition from parents or state legislators, who had already cleared the way for such an initiative. Advertisements are affixed to the outside cargo panels of 25 buses, the school now runs five campaigns, and Scottsdale Unified nets $70,000 a year. "They aren't knocking down our doors yet. It's a fairly new concept for advertising people," Shearer said. The content is paid for by area car dealerships, real estate agents and insurance companies, theoretically creating a nice cycle for the local economy.

With the exception of rear-end safety signage, Missouri does not allow displays on its buses. An advertisement "would not pass safety inspection by the highway patrol," said Nick Boren, the chief operations officer for Columbia's public schools. Boren adds that the state, and the district, doesn't want drivers to divert their attention by reading advertisements. The only strategic communication, then, is "Safety!"; the only branding: bright yellow. Boren recognizes the funding issues but says that with a 2008-09 budget of $160 million, "advertisements would bring in pennies."

For now, the district's brick walls are also safe from billboards. Unless a business is advertising a product sold on the premises, city ordinances regulate the posting of signs. American and state flags are allowed, said John Sudduth of the city's Protective Inspection Division, but not an enormous Barilla box on the side of the Pasta Factory. That's good, because I don't want to be hungry for penne every time I think of Broadway.

Greg T. Spielberg is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism and a former assistant city editor for the Columbia Missourian.

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Paul Hagey October 3, 2008 | 5:30 a.m.

Great article.
The morning train and the school bus!

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