Media: All about ... Ambient media

Will cars plastered with ads find space in the sector, Alasdair Reid asks.

On the face of it, Roadshow seems like an Alan Partridge sort of a media opportunity. Or, put another way, it will be a very particular type of individual who will feel pride in driving a car plastered with advertising. No matter how generous the financial inducements.

On the other hand, it's far from the daftest ambient media opportunity we've seen in recent times. And there's a certain inevitability about it too - after all, buses, taxis and even motorcycle couriers have carried ads for donkey's years.

Roadshow, owned by Lloyds-TSB, is headed by Paul Slaymaker, a former Springer & Jacoby chief executive. (He is supported by his sales director, Brett Marshall, and Maurice Rourke, the managing director of the car dealer and finance company Dutton Forshaw.) The company was formed to supply branded cars to the average motorist. Or in some cases, the not-so-average motorist - Roadshow hopes to place upmarket brands on marques owned by those in more exalted demographics.

It believes it will be able to supply advertisers with moving vehicles in quantities as small as ten and as large as 10,000. Drivers will be recruited through the internet, advertising, PR and event activity. The inducement will be a new car on generous financial terms.

There are now more than 28 million cars on Britain's roads - and a straw poll in the 21-30 demographic found that a quarter of this age group would be interested in driving an admobile, provided the creative work was cool.

On the other hand, the ambient market is surely close to saturation point by now.

1. Ambient media revenues grew steadily across the late 90s to peak at an estimated £84 million (according to Helix, the outdoor specialist). Although growth in the number of launches shows no sign of abating, revenue has been in gradual but steady decline since then - last year, the medium was worth around £57 million.

2. Pre-1995, the ambient market was essentially composed of a handful of opportunities, including 48-sheet mobile poster sites, washroom posters and supermarket trolleys. In the first phase of the ambient boom, these were joined by postcards in bars, bus and train tickets, posters in schools and hospitals, plus the format that arguably gained the sector the most notoriety - petrol-pump ads.

3. One sub-strand that has become a multimedia channel in its own right is retail advertising - and this has reached a high point of sophistication in the in-store TV systems currently being introduced, most notably by Tesco.

4. Out-of-home video systems were initially classified as ambient - meaning, in this instance, a fringe activity. But the success of large-screen activity such as Maiden's Transvision network in mainline railway stations has led to this sort of big public-space video screen being reclassified as mainstream out-of-home media.

5. The new wave of ambient opportunities includes pizza boxes and other fast-food containers, helicopter banners, stadium sponsorship, locker and mirror stickers in gyms, fruit and veg stickers and screens in salons, gyms and bars. It has also seen the revival of classic formats such as beer-mats and matchbooks.

6. This has been a fairly decent year for new ideas. The low point, in the opinion of many, was the Frisbee stunt for the University of Greenwich at Glastonbury. Midway through Elvis Costello's set , the crowd was showered with Frisbees bearing the university's logo. Fun was had by all for about ten minutes; but for the rest of the festival the frisbees became mud-encrusted dirty bombs, with the result that the university's name became, similarly, mud.

7. The operation with the cutest zeitgeist credentials is probably Tabletalkmedia, which now sells 20,000 table-top opportunities across the Coffee Republic chain, Welcome Break cafes and shopping precinct food courts. It's also a player in the coffee cup-sleeve advertising business. This is regarded as a breakthrough opportunity because it takes ambient into the office environment. Research indicates that half of those buying coffee at Coffee Republic take their purchase back to the office, where the sleeve then has a "dwell time" of more than 20 minutes on the purchaser's office desk. This year, Unilever, Microsoft, Visa, Sony Ericsson and Axa Health Insurance have all advertised on coffee cup-sleeves.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

MEDIA PLANNERS

- The joke in some circles, a couple of years back, was that the more fashionable new planning operations were basically sales fronts for street theatre troupes, stunt artistes and the washroom media companies.

- Unfortunately, the joke has started to wear thin for a number of reasons - not least the fact that avante garde media planners are effectively aiding and abetting new clutter in attempting to avoid the old.

- And some advertising - notably flyposting - is such an eyesore that its perpetrators now have restraining orders slapped on them to counter their antisocial behaviour.

ADVERTISERS

- Even the most staid corporations have now experimented with a bit of ambient. They are motivated by fears that a decline in the effectiveness of TV ads, coupled with increased clutter in other conventional media, will radically diminish their ability to achieve cut-through.

- The downside is that it can sometimes be a risky business. This is an environment where your brand can end up looking scabby. Put simply, you can't force people to keep their ad cars spotlessly clean.

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