A flash in the pan?

Ambient media as a sector is growing by the day, but what is it all about? Are ambient campaigns carefully planned assaults or one-off stunts; and can effectiveness be measured?

In the 1890s, an enterprising Victorian marketer came up with a brilliant scheme to promote the dazzling attractions of Blackpool’s Winter Gardens: he bought 100 parrots, and trained them to chatter incessantly about the delights that holidaymakers could find there. Individual birds were then left at hotels and restaurants across Lancashire.

History, unfortunately, fails to record how effective this early form of ambient advertising actually was. Certainly, no one is offering clients the opportunity to have their wares promoted by a squadron of articulate birds. But, given the growth of ambient advertising and the number of opportunities available, it is only a matter of time before trained parrots are back on the menu.

One of the main reasons why the ambient sector is growing so fast is that the term is used as a catch-all. If an advertising technique doesn’t fit in the traditional sectors (television, radio, film, press and posters), then it will usually be classified as ambient.

Concord, the outdoor buying specialist, produces an annual report on the ambient market. Its latest survey shows that there are over 400 companies offering ambient advertising in the UK – an increase of 88 compared with last year. The new entrants for 2001 show just how broad a church ambient marketing is. There are companies that offer giant banner advertising (the sort you see on construction site hoardings), TV ads in taxis, posters in university toilets, giant slide projections (such as the much-publicised picture of a naked Gail Porter that was projected on to the side of the Houses of Parliament). There are even companies that offer the opportunity to turn ferries and barges into huge moving ads.

No room for stereotypes

Some critics of the sector say that most ambient media is unmeasurable and untargeted – a shotgun approach. But Sara Hayes, national buying manager for specialist media buyer Blade, says: “It would be quite wrong to generalise about ambient media – it’s such an umbrella term. Some media involved are accountable, while some are not. What’s important is that you know what you want to achieve, plan accordingly and then see whether you’ve reached your target.”

Concord suggests that the sector is due for a shake-up and those companies that manage not only to survive but prosper, will be those that can offer clients some level of accountability. While there may be a place for the shotgun approach, it will be increasingly difficult for those who employ such techniques to create an added-value proposition. Thus they will remain commodity sellers with lower profit margins.

Keith Roberts, a director of Concord, observes: “Over the next few years, natural selection will take place. Accountability will sort the men from the boys, and sales houses have had to recognise the need to offer some measurement.”

Roberts believes that there are many forms of ambient advertising that should be relatively easy to measure. Anything located in a retail environment should be measurable through its effect on day-to-day sales. “Advertising a chocolate bar on petrol pumps or on petrol station till receipts, for example, should show an immediate increase in sales of the product, which you’ll be able to see from electronic point of sale (EPoS) records. And in a retail environment, trolley advertising is similarly very measurable,” says Roberts.

He accepts, though, that “it would be wrong to say that all ambient media is fully accountable – but there are some pretty robust systems in place, probably covering around 50 per cent of the ambient sector.”

Mission impossible

This doesn’t mean that within the next few years all ambient media will become fully measurable. Many techniques are either impossible to measure or so expensive that measuring results would never be cost effective. Many of these techniques aren’t advertising at all, but PR stunts – the Gail Porter Houses of Parliament projection being a good example. Roberts says: “We’ll always have the stunts, but how do you measure them? Often, measurement has to be seen in terms of their impact on other media: column inches in the consumer and national press, for example.”

Successful ambient advertising (as opposed to stunts) usually involves a message being put into the hands, or minds, of the target market when they are at their most susceptible. This is the chief reason for the growth of ads on till receipts, supermarket floors or trolleys, shopping bags, sandwich bags and so forth.

Getting in the mood

As RSVP Media Store project director George Barrett observes: “For marketers, shopping bags and till receipts offer the chance to put their message into the hands of consumers in store, when they are in a mood to buy things.”

Although one could argue that by the time the shopper gets the shopping bag or till receipt, they have completed their shopping requirements and so the moment has been lost.

Alphabet Advertising planning director Craig Elston agrees that ambient media suffers from the shotgun approach, “but it’s never a shot in the dark”. Even poorly targeted ambient techniques can be effective, if properly integrated with other media, he says. Ambient media’s strength is the way that it can be placed “at the point where the consumer is the most susceptible to the marketing message”.

For Example, Alphabet worked for Myoyster.com to advertise the online recruitment website’s services on sandwich bags. “The idea was to reach people at a time when they’re taking 20 minutes for themselves and when they are likely to be be thinking about their day ay work and how they’d like it to be better,” Elson says.

Dot-com clients have been big users of ambient media. Often, such advertising will be picked up and taken back to the workplace, where many office workers have Internet access and, as recent studies show, are happy to surf the Net for non-work purposes.

Flying high

Practitioners agree that effective use of ambient advertising depends on the time and the place – but it’s not just effective in retail environments. Sam Laite is advertising manager for bmi media, which offers clients the opportunity to advertise to about 350,000 passengers every month on flights operated by bmi British Midland (the airline formerly know as British Midland International). In addition to selling ad space within in-flight publications, Laite also handles meal tray card advertising, which involves the placement of Z-Cards (leaflets that fold to the size of a credit card) on meal trays.

“People pick them up, flick through them and drop them in their pockets. We’ve had a range of clients, including Microsoft, who have used them to promote their customer relationship management services.”

Other advertising opportunities include seat back advertising and distribution of material in airport business lounges. As Laite says: “It expands the opportunities for marketing to the airline’s customers. In the old days, you’d only be using in-flight magazines – but they don’t have the same impact any more.”

Travellers are perfect targets for ambient techniques, because they are such a captive audience. The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) is using advertising on the back of train tickets to promote its range of railcards. The campaign, developed by Craik Jones, has nine executions that will appear on 110 million train tickets.

Polluting the environment?

ATOC railcard marketing manager Christian Pratt admits: “Some people argue that ambient campaigns are the worst form of advertising pollution. But I believe that there are a number of factors that turn what could be an irritant into a communication that is welcomed.

“First, the relationship between the advertiser and the space. We supply the tickets, so it’s only natural that we take advantage of the unused backs. Second, targeting.

“We know this target marketis interested in train travel and it would be reasonable to assume they are also interested in savings.”

Clearly ATOC is in a good position to measure the effectiveness of its advertising through its ability to track season ticket sales.

Keeping track

Other forms of ambient advertising can be tracked through the use of coded response mechanisms and vouchers – perhaps even incorporating barcoding. Postcards distributed in cinemas, theatres, bars and clubs and magazine inserts have become an increasingly popular way of targeting a younger market.

Martin Smith, sales director of Boomerang Media – a major supplier of postcard advertising – says: “Redemption rates for vouchers attached to postcards can be exceptionally high: rates exceeding ten per cent have been recorded for clients such as Zest magazine, Wella Shock Waves and L’Oreal StudioLine.”

Another Boomerang client, Calida, a Swiss underwear company with no UK distribution, ran a postcard campaign in health clubs and bars, plus tip-ons in Time Out. “This resulted in 6,000 people accessing its website, which resulted in 93,000 hits (each person looking at an average of just over 15 pages on the site) and 2,300 competition entries,” according to Smith.

Much ambient advertising can be measured effectively, as long as the client, media buyer or agency invests in some kind of tracking mechanisms. However, there are many forms of ambient advertising that will continue to be unmeasurable. Whether that type of ambient advertising survives will depend on how many clients can be convinced that the unique character of some ambient advertising is worth the investment.

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