Home Subway Advertising The slow creep of transit audio advertising

The slow creep of transit audio advertising

by Benjamin Kabak

With ads already appearing on Metrocards, are audio spots the next frontier?

How’s this for the perfect storm of annoying transit ideas? Imagine the incessant audio announcements we’re currently subjected to on subways and, to a lesser degree, buses. Now imagine if those were advertisements. Are you sobbing in the corner yet?

It’s not a particularly far-fetched idea. Already, everything transit covered in ads. Buses carry displays on the outside, stations come sported full buy-outs, the video screens in some of the newer subway cars were once designed to broadcast advertisements and even MetroCards can now be sponsored. And now, as Eric Jaffe detailed at The Atlantic Cities yesterday, audio ads for buses are on the way in some U.S. cities.

Audio ads in transit systems are part of a natural progression as transit agencies seek to squeeze every dollar out of every possible outlet. These ads too aren’t just stock spots. The company selling them has implemented a GPS-based technology that allows ads targeted to specific routes and destinations to play as buses near those locales. Currently, riders in 11 metro areas — but not, obviously, New York — are subject to these ads, but some transit agencies are hesitant to embrace them for fear of irking riders.

Jaffe summarizes the state of play:

On paper, the idea seems like a win for everyone. (Though, what doesn’t?) Advertisers can reach consumers at hand-picked times and places. Transit authorities bag some extra operational revenue without dipping into public pockets. Commuters avoid fare hikes and service cuts in exchange for just a tiny sliver of their soul. The payoff varies by city. While Commuter Advertising doesn’t release its revenue figures, Ryan Holeywell of Governing recently reported that Champaign, Illinois, has earned about $150,000 from its audio ad partnership since 2009. Not a boom, for sure, but not much of a risk, either, because the company offers its service zero-cost to transit providers and will even compensate them if expenses are incurred…

Commuter Advertising does its best not to overwhelm the airwaves. (The company was founded by two regular transit commuters, after all, during a serendipitous trip on the Chicago El.) The audio ads never last more than 15 seconds, and they only run at 8 to 20 percent of all transit stops, which means every fifth time the door opens at most…What transit commuters worry about is the slippery slope. Print ads are no problem until riders find themselves standing at a bus stop transformed into a Dunkin’ Donuts oven. Station names are fine to sell unless the system map becomes geographically meaningless. Tame audio ads are likewise acceptable — it’s the idea that one day platform loudspeakers will play them non-stop that frightens riders.

As things stand, though, audio bus ads seem to reside at the tolerable end of the transit marketing spectrum. Riders can always wear headphones, and audio campaigns might even prompt transit agencies to fix their habitually busted speaker systems. A little annoying? Sure. Demeaning or intolerable? Hardly. If the money is right, and the approach respectful, they might even be the responsible choice.

A win-win on paper, as Jaffe calls it, though depends on the revenue generated. Even for a relatively small system like that in Champaign, Illinois, the $150,000 is a ripple in the bucket. The CUMTD has annual expenses topping $42 million, and the money from audio ads won’t avert any sort of fare hike should one be necessary. Play enough audio message, though, and riders feel harassed by them as they do in the New York City subway.

Ultimately, this is a delicate area for any transit agency. Riders are a captive audience for advertiser eyeballs, but riders can grow irate in a split second especially when public perceptions surrounding mass transit aren’t particularly positive in the first place. More advertising in and on public transit may be inevitable as agencies look to recoup lost subsidies as best they can, but I’m not looking forward to the day we hear audio ads on buses.

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Stephen - NYC September 6, 2013 - 8:14 am

“Irked”? They are afraid they might irk us riders? Gee, good thing the MTA isn’t afraid of that. Let me state from the beginning: No audio ads! Period. End of Story. His concern about the slippery slope is justified. Maybe it starts with 15 seconds. Then they play 2 15-second ads (do the math). Then they increase the frequency (again do the math). Would they play automatically? Or does the bus operator have to hit the magic button? And let’s face it, the audio system on the buses is not exactly an audio studio. Are they going to fix them first? Or do we get to hear jumbled ads along with the rare bus stop announcement? I already have to wear headphones due to the poor design combined with the jacked-up audio levels of the iPod ear buds. No matter what people are listening to, they allow for the escape of noise. And not calm, break-screeching noise. No, constant annoying noise. I for one would not buy any product or service that advertises that way, just like I boycott any naming rights company (yes, it gets harder and harder every day, but I do my best to avoid them). Right now, the buses and subways play those ‘bags are searchable’ PSA. That’s enough.

Nathanael September 7, 2013 - 11:24 am

Audio ads == destroy speakers time.

I already do this at doctors’ offices.

Audio ads are not acceptable under any circumstances whatsoever. They are a public nuisance and every citizen is obligated to destroy any equipment which is producing them.

AMM September 6, 2013 - 9:02 am

I’m already “irked” by the Public Disservice Announcements they make in the subways. You know, the “please don’t sexually molest your fellow passengers” and “please don’t walk on the tracks and get hit by a train” ones to the point of muttering inappropriate language under my breath every time I hear one. (How would the MTA execs like hearing recorded announcements saying “don’t take bribes” and “always act in the best interests of the MTA’s riders” all day long?)

If the MTA decided to assault me with audio advertisements (commercial or not), I would break down and buy an iPod or something to drown out the aural propaganda, and enjoy not hearing any of their stupid announcements at all.

And that’s the real danger. When 99% of what your passengers hear from you is blatantly incorrect, irrelevant, insulting, or deceptive, they won’t be listening when an emergency comes up and people’s safety depends upon hearing what you have to say.

Bolwerk September 6, 2013 - 2:25 pm

The best part is how they wait until you’re trapped. You go under the river, and suddenly a stream of those announcements come on.

Blue September 12, 2013 - 11:47 am

The “please don’t sexually molest your fellow passengers” one doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, there have been times when that announcement came on and I gave a knowing look to a nearby subway creep as if to say, “hey this announcement is for you!”

Eric Brasure September 6, 2013 - 9:14 am

Because the TVs in cabs were such a success, let’s pollute the subways and buses with noise pollution too? Ugh. I understand that the MTA is looking for new ways to produce revenue, but this isn’t it.

Benjamin Kabak September 6, 2013 - 9:17 am

To be clear: The MTA isn’t looking into this as far as I know. This piece is about what other transit agencies throughout the country are pursuing. The largest agencies have yet to embrace this advertising.

Eric Brasure September 6, 2013 - 9:47 am

Ah, okay.

SEAN September 6, 2013 - 10:52 am


Do you know if this is coming from an Orlando FL, company called Transit Tv? They are similar to Clever Devices with there transit technology, but they built television into the system. Transit systems such as MARTA, LINX, CATS & L. A. MTA are currently using it. http://www.transitv.com

sharon September 6, 2013 - 2:06 pm

they should be . every revenue area should be explored. If you don’t want to listen to them put on your ear phones

Bolwerk September 6, 2013 - 2:26 pm

Yes, every revenue area. Let’s force you to listen to ads while you drive to Staten Island. If you don’t like it, you can roll down your window. ‘Cause you’re not allowed to use headphones in your Escalade! Sucker!

Nathanael September 7, 2013 - 11:25 am

If I don’t want to listen to them I will smash the speakers. And so should everyone else.

Audio ads are unacceptable.

Larry Littlefield September 6, 2013 - 9:17 am

Basically, Generation Greed having robbed the future wants a painless (to them) was of asserting that there really is a future after all.

Such as degrading the public realm as they die off or move away.

MTA advertizing revenues are like welfare recipients 20 years ago. Back then everything was blamed on the welfare recipients, even though they weren’t getting much money. Now the politicans can say that advertizing revenues can solve all the problems, and then quietly slink away to laugh somewhere else when they don’t.

John-2 September 6, 2013 - 9:37 am

I make it a point not to buy anything that shows up as an auto-play video ad online, which could be the same problem those doing audio ads would have on the trains — while the MTA might squeeze a few extra $$$ out of ads on the LED displays at each end of the car or the video screens on the R-160s, those are passive in that you don’t have to look at them if you don’t want to.

Being stuck on the train with the ads turned up loud enough so they’re now substituting for the tunnel noise in the old non-air conditioned cars is more likely to get people annoyed at the advertiser than they are to actually go out and buy the product (on the other hand, if the MTA wants to go back to the PA system quality of the old R-16 cars — where no announcement was ever intelligible — they can try to sell all the ads they want and I wouldn’t mind).

sharon September 6, 2013 - 2:08 pm

A better solution would be to have tv’s on the trains that play adds every so often but only to people listing to the program through an app

Nathanael September 7, 2013 - 11:26 am

Visual ads are OK because they can be ignored. Audio is intrusive.

Mark S. September 6, 2013 - 11:29 am

I love that phrase – “in exchange for just a tiny sliver of the soul.” Why is it that riders are the ones asked to part with their soul? I have no idea how many riders take this system, but it sounds like tiny slivers of the soul are valued at practically nothing.

My wife just returned from a few days in Amsterdam and reported that there was hardly any advertising anywhere in public spaces. The only advertising she noticed was small postings for local cultural events — museum shows, music fairs, etc. I’m sure it helps the soul breathe to be able to look around and see what’s there instead of being continually bombarded by messages.

david vartanoff September 6, 2013 - 12:41 pm

NO! I do not want either audio or video ads on public transit (some new buses in Oakland have a screen playing ads) Legalised graffiti (wraps) are bad enough. AMM is correct about the incessant uselass P(dis)SAs which in SF come in Chinese and Spanish as well. Some of us don’t cocoon off into ipods but would like less noise pollution.

sharon September 6, 2013 - 2:10 pm

then you can agree to pay more tax dollars. Went to visit my grandma in staten island last weekend. Got RAPED for $15 bridge toll on top of the mta surcharge on my car insurance and cell phone and cable and mortgage recording tax. An add is not that bad in comparison

Bolwerk September 6, 2013 - 2:22 pm

You can too, then. Your $15 bridge toll and the MTA surcharges still mean your kind are costing taxpayers billions per year in subsidies for roads. Until you recognize that, you should stop telling people they aren’t paying enough.

And are you seriously comparing paying $15 for a trip you ultimately had a choice to make to somebody forcing an object into one of your orifices against your will?

Nathanael September 7, 2013 - 11:28 am

Yeah. In actual fact, the only thing mentioned in this thread which is akin to “somebody forcing an object into one of your orifices against your will” — is AUDIO ADS, which are forcing advertising into one of your orifices against your will.

Audio ads? Actually comparable to rape. Loud noises which can’t be turned off are a standard TORTURE technique.

Tolls? Not.

Tom P September 6, 2013 - 9:04 pm

A stream of free money for the MTA that you can ignore with earbuds. Sounds horrifying.

For a group that wants a constant stream of system improvements with no fare hikes, you guys are awfully judgy about HOW the system gets funds.

Todd Edelman, Slow Factory September 6, 2013 - 9:46 pm

Regarding invasion of personal space while in public and on public transport, this is horrid but only just a continuation of a trend of disrespect. Here is my Flickr Group on the subject: http://www.flickr.com/groups/self-harming_pt_ads/

There should be clear communication by public transport operators on how much revenue they receive from advertising.

herenthere September 18, 2013 - 12:32 pm

Champaign’s bus network audio advertising might be linked to location through the AVL system. For instance, when passing by a certain area in either direction, the same advertisement will play informing riders of a particular service at the next stop. Whether or not people actually pay attention to it with earphones in, who knows, but if businesses are willing to pay a premium to have their ad play by their location, it might be worth more…

Source: First person experience.

Andie May 28, 2018 - 1:05 am

As a driver I have been spit on, shoved, cursed, followed into the restroom, provided no breaks, had broken chairs slam me down, endlessly had bones rattled on streets left bumpy to get grant money, had my shoes vomited on, got pooh on my hand moving a wheelchair passenger, stopped just in time for a beaten person passed out in the street, made turns in chaos pedestrian conditions where a crosswalk guard was not provided, and more, lots more. But nothing compares to the torture of these ads, except maybe the disrespect to the working conditions relationship to safety.


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