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.