Home Subway Advertising From hemorrhoids to The Gap, a recent history of subway advertising

From hemorrhoids to The Gap, a recent history of subway advertising

by Benjamin Kabak

Subway advertising now includes space on the front of the city’s fare cards.

As I’ve walked through the Times Square subway each morning this summer on my way to work, I’ve noticed that the full station ads have seemingly been dormant. Throughout June, the billboards promoted BBC America’s “Copper” show, but after that, the pipeline dried up. The 42nd St. Shuttle cars are decked out in soccer adverts, but it’s noticeable that the in-station ads are due for a refresh.

Twenty or even ten years ago, New Yorkers would have been shocked by the concept of station advertising. After the heydays of the 1950s, MTA advertising hit the skids. We had Julio and Marisol, Dr. Zizmor and a bunch of ESL classes. While some of those persist today, they’ve been joined by Madison Avenue’s bigger accounts. Anheuser-Busch and ABC now buy out full car spots while Sleepy’s now has banners on the outsides of some train cars. Even Metrocards now carrying advertising, and big names such as The Gap and Audible.com are forking over big bucks for the spots.

Recently, while researching another piece, I came across a great story from the early 1990s about the MTA’s advertising or lack thereof. Published by The Times in July of 1991, it explored why the subway ads were so bad. Here’s how Douglas Martin summarized the situation:

Reading the advertising cards posted over the fluorescent panels certainly adds to this perception, and must suggest to visitors that New York subway riders roam a daily hell far grimmer than even the worst graffiti of yesteryear. Those suffering from hemorrhoids or anal warts can find any number of laser-packing doctors with phone numbers like M-D-T-U-S-C-H. Those needing their torn ear lobes resewn, their roaches removed, their AIDS diagnosed, their doctors sued, find succor. “Who cares if you’ve been mugged?” asks a Victim Services Agency ad illustrated with a picture of a woebegone chap wearing smashed glasses…

While no one disputes the need many have for the products advertised, the dismal view of urban life that looms over every commuter is part of a long, slow transition from the 1950’s, when subways carried national and department store ads as a matter of course. It is not a phenomenon anybody relishes, including the people who run the subways. “Through the years, the advertising is less tasteful, if you will,” said Henry Rissmeyer, acting director of marketing and corporation communications for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “Part of that is a perception of riders of the subway, one shared by advertisers.”

He thinks the reason is related to the fact that few Madison Avenue ad types — and he was one once — venture into the subway. “Most are reimbursed for cabs,” he said. Subway ads, he says, are “an afterthought.”

They might be missing a very big and very cheap opportunity. Each business day, some 3.5 million people ride the subways. Over a month, more than 5 million people can be reached. That, says the man in charge of selling advertising space, adds up to more New Yorkers than might be reached by running commercials on all three networks simultaneously. “It’s so inexpensive, people refuse to believe it,” said Rick Del Mastro, president of Gannett Transit, the subsidiary of the Gannett communications empire whose bid won it the right to manage subway advertising. “And guess what? The doors close and you’re locked in.”

The article from 22 years ago portends video ads — a technology ever coming soon. New clocks were to provide 10 full-color ads per minute and train traffic information with an eye toward bringing rotation ad screens to the interior of the city’s subway cars. These days, such video screens are slowly escaping the pilot program label while some of the new R160s have space for video ads but no commercials in rotation. Some things change over the decades; some do not.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s advertising program has been a recent success story. Ridership has exploded upward since that 1991 article, and Transit, with over 5 million captive riders a day, now brings in $120 million annually in advertising revenue. It’s been a long, slow climb with untapped potential sitting out there, but we’re no longer subjected to hemorrhoids or roaches. Rather, we have station names and Metrocard ads instead.

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John-2 August 27, 2013 - 1:34 am

The ad situation goes to the reported comment Rupert Murdoch got from Bloomingdale’s boss Marvin Traub on why he didn’t advertise in the Post — “Your readers are our shoplifters.” That’s how advertisers saw the average subway rider by the 1970s — as not the kind of person they either wanted in their store, thought would watch their show or movie, or expected to have the money to buy their products to begin with.

It’s the general improvement of the city over the past 20 years that’s resulted in the return of more upscale advertisers to the subways. The better safety levels, combined with both gentrification of nearby outerborough areas and a generation of riders who don’t remember the bad days means there’s far less of a negative socio-economic stigma to riding the subway than there was a generation ago. And more people with more disposable income on the trains = more ads.

(Even 30 years ago, you could see upper-income demographic people on the trains. You just didn’t get enough of them to where the higher-dollar advertisers felt it was worth their while to market below ground, and even now, those shelling out the big bucks for the wraps prefer the shuttle, because they know it’s staying in the midtown area. When the MTA can start getting big advertisers to do 8-car wraps of Z trains to Parsons-Archer, then you’ll know they’re getting as much as they can get out of selling ad space in the system.)

SEAN August 27, 2013 - 10:32 am

If an advertizer wants to do an entire train wrap, they should do it on the E since you’ll have WTC at one end of the line & JFK Airport at the other end. Best bang for the buck with numerous connection points from other transit providers.

Nyland8 August 27, 2013 - 5:37 am

The ads in the subway cars are so inexpensive, people can afford to be whimsical about buying them.

I snapped these on the way home from work one day. The alleged plastic surgeon for dogs (who doesn’t do cats) had his ad fashioned after the aforementioned Dr. Zizmor. Same general scheme, same palette.


I roared when I saw it. The other people in the car, earbuds inserted or faces buried in their electronic games, never seemed to notice it until I started taking pictures.

They also do “tail enhancements”.

Chicken Underwear August 27, 2013 - 7:37 am

@Nyland8; it is an at for a TV show.


It fooled me at first too.

Nyland8 August 27, 2013 - 8:50 am

Yes … I got that. Believe it or not, I didn’t think there was a plastic surgeon who was turning what appeared to be English Bulldogs into Jack Russel Terriers. But I’d be surprised if the ad upped the shows ratings, considering the fact that I’ve never witnessed anyone reading the fine “as shown on … ” print.

Apropos of that, I saw the Dr. Zizmor ad again this morning, and it looked fresh and new – without the rainbow. I guess it must be worth the business he’s drumming up.

Chicken Underwear August 27, 2013 - 5:55 pm


I thought it was real for a minute.

Eric Brasure August 27, 2013 - 10:24 am

I’m always struck by the fact that the subway is one of the only places I ever see book ads.

Ike August 27, 2013 - 10:46 am

We have video ads on the PATH. Mercifully, they’re silent. Even so, I find them irritating since my eye can’t help but be drawn to them. Many of them seem aimed at an upscale audience. In the past I’ve seen video campaigns for travel to Florida and at least one Caribbean island. For several months we’ve also seen many ads for the RT channel (the Russian-government-funded news channel in English). One of them depicts hotel rooms magically unfolding with servants bringing in fancy room service while RT plays on flat screen TVs in the background. Pretty bizarre. This is all mixed with content from NBC 4, which administers the whole thing, and news from MSNBC. However, the video system’s non-advertising content malfunctions regularly, especially on weekends when the Port Authority basically gives us the finger and runs the trains less and less frequently (we REALLY need a PATH version of the Straphangers Campaign). Occasionally we’ll see very old news. Often on weekends, and occasionally at other times, the system will go back to the content it had when it was first installed, with jokes from NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” (!!!) and ads for Law & Order: SVU when it still starred Chris Meloni. But this will still be mixed with current ads for RT. I guess they’ve got their financial priorities straight — make sure the ads are working correctly first, and the other content is just filler and can go haywire!

John-2 August 27, 2013 - 11:17 am

Back in the 50s and even into the 60s and early 70s, PATH’s station wall ads — as well as those in the ferry terminal on Staten Island — were targeted to the same more-upscale audience demographic as the commuter rail stations (in part because lots of PATH riders were also commuter rail riders, using the system after being deposited in Hoboken). Broawdway plays and investment brokerage ads were common in those locations, while if the TA/OA got anything similar, it was the Broadway shows that would be promoted on the Busorama ad space, since the ‘batwing’ exterior ads were basically moving billboards through Midtown Manhattan.

SEAN August 27, 2013 - 12:16 pm


DR. Zizmor works on more than just your finger or the PATH’s vertual finger. LOL

John Paul N. August 28, 2013 - 5:43 am

I wonder why I have never seen any advertisement for Transit Transit (the TV newsmagazine produced by the MTA) on the subway.

Nyland8 August 28, 2013 - 11:15 pm

That’s a good point. They promote their system expansions. They promote improvements. Why wouldn’t they advertise their own show?

I ran into the MTA’s capital project videographer last week. We were at 94th and 2nd Ave. jacking a pile cap that held up a building column, and she was there to record the proceedings. The pile cap was in the way of the escalators planned for the southwest entrance to the 96th St. station.

I asked her if it would appear on Transit Transit. She seemed surprised that I even knew of the show. But then she suggested it would appear on the MTA’s YouTube channel first, and if it appeared on Transit Transit, it would probably be at least a few months away.

I mention all this because I wasn’t left with the impression that TT has a regular production schedule, or if the entire thing is done spontaneously. Whenever I’ve caught it on TV, there was no telling if the show was going to be a few weeks old, six months old, … whenever. And the vignettes on the show seem to not be connected chronologically. It’s not a magazine so much as it is a mélange.

Maybe they don’t advertise because it is so irregular.


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