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The front of the MetroCard is not the only new territory being given over to commerce. This year, for the first time, [New York's] Metropolitan Transportation Authority began allowing ads to cover passenger windows on buses. Calvin Klein and Broadway producers embraced the spot.
At the same time, interactive digital advertising has arrived on an immense scale. Along 60 feet of a mezzanine corridor at the Columbus Circle station, those so inclined could either try to outrun an image of Ryan Hall, courtesy of Asics, or try to play fetch with a virtual dog, courtesy of the dog food company Beneful.
Then there are naming rights: for $200,000 a year, the authority has added the designation "Barclays Center" to the name of the Atlantic Avenue stations in Brooklyn. The measure is one part customer service -- the new arena by that name is a block away -- and two parts marketing, as the arena and stations now carry the name of a giant international financial services company.
Commercial marketing has been interwoven with transit since early days: car cards, wall posters, even naming rights. (The station at Broadway and 42nd Street was named for a private company, The New York Times, even before the first trains rolled in 1904.)
Now, as new digital information systems are introduced, ads are coming along with them.It is a big business. This year, the authority expects to receive $120 million from advertising in the subway, on buses, on its two commuter railroads and on billboards along its routes. Its spokesman Aaron Donovan said this compared with $106 million in 2007 and $38 million in 1997.
"In the midst of a recession that has battered the advertising sector, our advertising revenue has increased significantly over the past five years," Mr. Donovan said, "in part through the use of innovative digital technologies that we've welcomed into the system."In an overall annual operating budget of $13.1 billion, advertising revenue pays almost 1 percent of the costs.
About half of that revenue comes from a single contract, with CBS Outdoor, for subway-related advertising. This year, CBS paid the authority $61.8 million. The 10-year contract, which expires in 2015, has an overall minimum guaranteed value of $580 million.
Payments may even be higher if business is especially good. CBS Outdoor said through a spokeswoman, Jodi Senese, that the growth in ad sales could be traced to increased ridership, new formats that "pique advertiser interest in the medium generally" and the "constriction of other 'out-of-home' opportunities," like advertisements on sidewalk scaffolding.
No transit system can afford to leave money on the table, said Art Guzzetti, the vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association in Washington. "We're growing in ridership, but revenues have not grown," he said in a telephone interview.
"We're strapped for revenues, and have to turn over every rock."For that reason, Gene Russianoff of the riders' advocacy group Straphangers Campaign, said he was reluctant to criticize the increasingly aggressive search by the transportation authority for nongovernment financing. "They're doing what they've been asked to do," he said, "and it's hard to fault them."
But revenues come with a cost of their own, suggested Siva Vaidhyanathan, the chairman of the media studies department at the University of Virginia. "We've gotten to the point now where the M.T.A. doesn't respect its own environment and is filling it with sight pollution," he said in a phone interview.
"A bright yellow subway car, branded to sell something, is not comfortable, it's not respectful and it's not dignified.""Environmentally, the city should be paying attention to dignity as a quality-of-life indicator,"
Professor Vaidhyanathan said.There are restraints, it turns out. Transportation officials will not permit city buses to be fully wrapped in advertising, in part because no one -- including police officers -- can clearly see what is going on behind windows covered in vinyl sheets.
The new exterior ads, called "L-sides," are limited to a single window on one side of a bus: 20.5 square feet of glass.The product used by CBS Outdoor, Contra Vision, is described as see-through.
But it might be likened to a very fine colander. In both cases, one is looking through a field of small perforations. In a joint statement, the transportation authority and CBS said they did not believe that "placing Contra Vision on a single window compromises the passenger experience in any material way." "If a particular passenger prefers an entirely unobstructed view, there are plenty of windows to chose from," they said.
"The M.T.A.'s customers have never hesitated to voice concerns with respect to the advertising that appears on its buses, yet the M.T.A. has not to date received a single complaint about this ad medium."Since 2003, the authority has allowed the shuttle and a few other subway trains to be wrapped, though windows may not be covered.
Occasionally, advertisers will also install up to six "video car cards" with 11-inch screens (measured diagonally) in each car. These play silent visual loops. Audio is not an option.
The authority "would like to see more of this kind of thing," Mr. Donovan said, "and is open to the introduction of digital media in a variety of formats throughout the system."There are now 100 "urban panels" at subway entrances, with digital screens on both sides. (A year ago, there were 80 one-sided panels.)
The side facing the stairs can show updated transit information at the bottom of the screen. A traveler reading the screen might learn of delays on the Seventh Avenue line, for example, and decide instead to take an Eighth Avenue train.
The outward-facing side shows 15-second commercials on a 55-inch screen.More screens are coming. In a pilot program called On the Go, the authority placed free-standing, interactive kiosks in five subway stations last year.
These carry status reports on subway, elevator and escalator service; large, legible subway maps that can be summoned by fingertip; and digital advertisements. The program is to be expanded, and Ms. Senese said CBS was "interested in the commercial potential of these screens.
"Since its contract began in 2006, CBS Outdoor has introduced branded turnstile arms, usually as part of a larger station domination by a single advertiser; "stripes" running on the sides of Seventh Avenue, Lexington Avenue and shuttle trains; and "headliners" that stretch across the entire top of some buses, chiefly in Manhattan.It tried and abandoned floor decals ("Foot traffic rendered them unattractive," Ms. Senese said) and digital ads projected on screens.
It determined that the technology is not yet at hand to permit columns and walls to be wrapped in light-emitting material. Nor does it envision any "cross-track" ads; that is, panels placed in the track well that can be read by passengers standing on the opposite platform. "'Cross-track' is difficult to execute in a 24-hour system," Ms. Senese said.
Professor Vaidhyanathan, for one, would like to see some more restraint. He bristled at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center name. "What happens if Barclays is convicted of massive fraud in the Libor scandal?" he asked.
"What happens if Barclays goes out of business?"Alternately, however, what if the bank and the new name show some staying power? After all, "Times Square" seems to have caught on.
This article first appeared on cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com
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