Moving Message

Traditionally used to support an ad campaign, ambient media has become a marketing discipline in its own right. But further research is needed to convince clients of its effectiveness, says Steve Hemsley

Next time you are strolling down London’s Oxford Street, look out for a man with a huge needle piercing his body.

On closer inspection you will see that he is actually wearing a sign pointing to a body-piercing shop called Quixotic. The marketing ploy was created by Maher Bird Associates, whose office overlooks Oxford Street, and demonstrates that in the right environment ambient media can be cost-effective and trigger an immediate response.

It also illustrates how a sector traditionally considered a public relations exercise has become a marketing discipline in its own right. Ambient media was worth an estimated £10m in 1995 and could break the £64m barrier by the end of this year, according to outdoor media specialist Concord’s Ambient Media 1999 report.

As the sector has grown, it has split into two groups: stunt ambient, such as the attention-grabbing Quixotic sign; and mainstream ambient, such as supermarket trolley, petrol pump or washroom advertising. In both cases, creative teams are realising that the advertising message must be relevant to the environment to maximise response.

Outdoor media company Outdoor Connection has produced a point of action report that analyses how consumers behave in different situations. Managing director Carole Kerman says when people are filling their cars with petrol or going to the toilet, they are involved in what marketers call “dead time”. That is, they have nothing else to do but look at a branded petrol nozzle or read a poster above a urinal in a washroom.

“When people are filling up with petrol, their minds wander. They may start thinking about what video to get the children or may be prompted to buy them chocolate as a treat after a long trip,” says Kerman.

She cites research by Alvern Forecourt Media/MRSL showing that a chocolate brand advertised on a pump nozzle can create a sales lift of 54 per cent during a campaign, although she accepts that more industry-wide research is needed to assess the impact on sales and brand awareness once the advertising has stopped.

Concord director Louise Goulborn says that conducting such research can be costly because no matter how big the increase in sales generated, it is still unlikely to cover the cost of the media. “Although advertising on petrol pump nozzles is perfect for creating impulse sales – you get your petrol and walk straight into the shop – advertisers use this form of ambient media to boost brand awareness in particular environments,” she says.

An increasing number of companies are apportioning some of their outdoor advertising budget to ambient, confident that targeting particular locations will generate interest in specific brands. In the first quarter of this year, ten of the UK’s top 50 advertisers – including Kellogg’s, BT, Nestlé and Unilever – used some form of ambient media, says the Concord report.

Julian Macey, director of Media Initiatives, says clients are taking a leap of faith into ambient media. His company has carried out tube ticket advertising for Kellogg’s Nutrigrain, and a Radio Rentals promotion targeting students through beer mat advertising. “Our clients would like more research but, judging by the repeat bookings, the environments we choose are delivering the responses they want,” he says.

In-store ambient

Retail remains the most active area, mainly because it is accepted that most purchasing decisions are made at the point of sale. The Point Of Purchase Advertising Institute (Popai) estimates that as many as 75.5 per cent of purchasing decisions are made at point of sale, and with the abundance of Epos information available, it is relatively easy to track the effect on sales of floor or trolley poster advertising.

The Media Vehicle is the biggest provider of shopping trolley advertising which, says chairman Jessica Hatfield, bridges the time gap between traditional media and the time of purchase. She says: “When people are watching TV ads they are not thinking about shopping. They think of product types rather than particular brands when compiling their shopping lists. Only when they are in the store environment do they choose between brands, and trolley poster advertising stays with shoppers for the duration of their visit – which in the UK is an average of 48 minutes according to Popai.”

Independent research carried out by Retail Marketing Services (RMS) for The Media Vehicle evaluated the sales potential of trolley advertising in 32 Asda stores with similar square footage, trading volumes and shopper demographics. Sales were monitored in the four weeks prior to the trial before trolley posters were introduced in 16 of the stores. Epos data was checked regularly and, during the test period, value sales of the advertised lines increased by 15.6 per cent while in non-advertised stores sales were down by 2.9 per cent.

Qualitative research by RMS into consumer perceptions of trolley poster advertising found that more than 50 per cent of shoppers said the posters informed them about promotions, even though none were taking place, and 25 per cent said the advertising helped them decide on a particular brand, while almost a third said the ads reminded them of which brand to buy.

Captive audiences

In many cases of ambient media the environment generates response because the brand has a captive audience. Advertising inside taxi cabs, for instance, is one of the best ways to reach busy business executives and decision makers who are enjoying a rare moment of peace between meetings.

Figures from Target Group Index (TGI) show that Londoners who travel by black cab – the majority of whom are ABC1s – spend an average of 14 minutes per trip in one of the capital’s 19,500 cabs, which means any message gets lengthy exposure. Specialist agency Taxi Media expects its turnover to rise from £3.5m to more than £5m this year. One of its biggest clients is United Airlines, which is running a year-long campaign in 50 liveried cabs whose interiors have been upgraded to create the effect of the airline’s business class.

Stephen Pearce, UK marketing manager for United Airlines, says the cabs were strategically chosen to ensure they spent most of their time in the City area of London and made regular trips to the airport. “We wanted something that would stand out of the crowded taxi advertising market. Ambient is a relatively small part of a rounded communication campaign, but is an area we are considering expanding,” he says.

Airport advertising

The airport is another good example of a location where a large group of target consumers converge. The fact that business people waiting for flights have time on their hands is one of the reasons why the bulk of newsstand sales for The Economist takes place at airports. Earlier this year, the magazine paired up with Sky Sites, the exclusive advertising sales contractor for the seven BAA airports, to advertise on the automatic doors at Heathrow terminals and on the sliding doors of the Heathrow Express train service from Paddington station. The message displayed was: “Are your arguments pulled apart like this?”.

The Economist brand marketing manager John Coghill says he wanted the magazine’s message to be noticed among the mass of advertising at the airport. “The environment must be right for a brand like ours. We wanted to come up with a clever idea which would stand apart from the gimmicks,” he adds.

Pubs and leisure centres are other environments where, if the advertising message is right, brands can benefit from ambient media. The Marketing Store Worldwide has devised the Carling kiosk football game, featuring a shoot-out competition, a “match the difference” photo contest and a British quiz. Response can be monitored immediately because drinkers must buy a pint of Carling to receive a token to play.

Meanwhile, leisure centre advertising contractor In Situ is reaching the end of a four-week campaign for Nike targeting teenage boys and young men who play football in the leisure centres. Posters promoting the concept of Nike Football Training appear in the receptions and postcards featuring international players such as the Brazilian Ronaldo have been placed in changing rooms.

In Situ sales director David Walsh says centres have been re-ordering the postcards and customers are asking if they can have the posters at the end of the promotion.

“Brands can get their message across in this environment because people rarely go to a leisure centre on their own – they are usually with family, friends or part of a team and will talk about what they see. They are also in a positive frame of mind because they are there for self-improvement, fun or to be competitive,” Walsh says.


Ambient media is not only a growing sector for targeting consumers, it is also gaining popularity among advertisers in the business-to-business world. Pharmaceutical company Warner Lambert advertised its Benylin cough mixture on 8 million dispensing bags supplied to high-street chemists, and studies by the company demonstrated that pharmacies were more inclined to recommend Benylin than rival products because they felt they were receiving support from Warner Lambert.

There is increasing evidence that activity at the point of sale both by the consumer and manufacturer can lift sales significantly. The focus on one-to-one marketing means that ambient media is bound to gain higher currency. The missing element now is the lack of independent research which would encourage the sceptics.


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