In 1990, Virgin Atlantic wanted to launch its first North American
service outside New York, from Miami to Boston. It ran a heavyweight
awareness campaign on TV in Boston to promote this upstart British brand
aggressively to the conservative American market.
’After the campaign, it turned out that the awareness of Virgin in
Boston was pretty low,’ Will Whitehorn, director of corporate affairs at
Virgin Group, remembers. ’In fact ’pretty low’ is being kind. Only 8 per
cent of people could recall the Virgin name and any connection between
it and the airline.’
Virgin’s response was born of a mixture of good fortune and
Richard Branson, as part of his balloon fixation, had acquired an
advertising airship which happened to have a month out between
contracts. So, he put the Virgin logo on the side with a telephone
’It was lit up from the inside - which was then a novelty - and it could
be used 17 hours a day,’ Whitehorn says. ’The results were really
spectacular. In the four weeks that it flew, awareness of Virgin in that
marketplace rose to 65 per cent. At a stroke, it became the most
successful campaign Virgin Atlantic ever ran.’
Ambient advertising had arrived - and now it has arrived in the UK in a
big way. The amount of money spent on ambient advertising in the UK this
year will be almost exactly twice what it was two years ago.
According to research by the poster specialist, Concord, ambient
advertising spend will pass pounds 64 million this year, up from pounds
54 million a year ago and pounds 32 million two years ago.
There is now a wide range of outfits selling ambient opportunities. The
outdoor specialist, Outdoor Connection, says fixed ambient posters now
account for 1.6 million panels. Players of all shapes and sizes are out
there - from companies specialising in one-offs, such as airline lunch
trays, to bigger players like The Media Vehicle, which has all but sewn
up trolley posters and floor graphics in every significant supermarket
The packaging of ambient has made a disparate medium easier to buy as
well as sell, fuelling the medium’s growth.
In fact, you can hardly escape ambient media these days. Someone,
somewhere, has tried to put an image on almost everything. Beck’s beer
even hired a 30-acre field and fashioned a 600ft-high bottle out of
specially coloured crops in an innovative appeal to advertising-weary
commuters on trains from Birmingham to London. It claimed an audience of
more than five million - not a bad return in these days of media
fragmentation. The difficulty of reaching large numbers through
conventional means helps explain the proliferation of ads on everything
from tube tickets and takeaway lids, to petrol pump nozzles and the
sides of cows.
The medium is increasingly talking the language of big business.
According to Concord’s research, during the first quarter of this year,
ten of the UK’s top 50 advertisers used some form of ambient media,
including advertising giants such as Unilever, BT, Kellogg’s and
Vauxhall. Kellogg’s had the single largest ambient budget over the
period, spending more than pounds 500,000 on trolley ads, phone-box
posters, floor ads and posters in CTN windows.
Unilever was the second-largest spender, with pounds 480,000 over the
’The bigger clients have undoubtedly realised that there is really no
limit to what can be a potential medium these days,’ Nick Welch, the
executive creative director of Ammirati Puris Lintas, explains. ’And as
long as the ambient media choices continue to surprise, they will
attract these clients who want their message to stand apart from the
Just how acceptable ambient is today has became clear with the launch of
agencies like Mother, which now use ambient advertising techniques not
just to advertise their clients’ products, but also to advertise
themselves to potential clients. They send out an Airfix model kit of a
soccer hooligan or pairs of edible knickers and thrash records as a self
promotional tool that impresses because it is seen to work. It has
already pulled in clients ranging from Coca-Cola and Unilever to
It’s no coincidence that one of Mother’s partners, Mark Waites, was an
early ambient media enthusiast, having pioneered the use of flyposters
by mainstream advertisers in the early 90s with his ’wedge of lime’ ads
for Sol. The success of these ads helped convince blue-chip advertisers
that an advertising campaign did not have to be in the centre break of
Coronation Street to work.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to see why their enthusiasm took so long
to develop. The fact is, spending on ambient media has had a steady,
barely noticeable progression until it made its last great leap forward
Ambient media, when thought of at all, tended previously to be viewed as
fringe media best used as the base for PR stunts. Now, however, there is
a growing feeling that the medium should assume its place alongside the
mainstream pack as part of a mature media plan.
The difference is that people now accept ambient media, and accept that
whether they use the opportunities well or badly really comes down to
the media strategy, in much the same way as it does with other
George Michaelides, the managing partner of Michaelides & Bednash, and
an early ambient advocate, remembers first trying an ad on the back of a
bus ticket seven years ago, as part of a campaign for Mercury. ’It was
different then because we had to do everything ourselves,’ he remembers,
’and I mean everything - even talking to the printers who produced the
ticket reels. At that time, people didn’t think much of the idea of ads
on tube tickets, whereas now it has become a legitimate medium.’
However, once the big clients have got on board and accepted that the
particular opportunity works, the chances are that it has lost one
essential ingredient of any ambient opportunity - the chance to
’It’s hard not to see a continued proliferation of ambient opportunities
as TV, press and radio become more fragmented and media planners are put
under increasing pressure to deliver the correct target audience in the
most cost-effective and innovative way,’ one ambient media owner,
Nicholas Lees of Freight Media, explains. ’But paradoxically, some of
these opportunities rely totally on press coverage to be effective - the
laser projections, open-air sites like the Beck’s beer field and so on.
So, the fallout rate of these new ambient media will continue to be high
once initial surprise is lost.’
Last year, of an estimated ten new major ambient media initiatives -
from cycle posters to egg advertising, at least four have subsequently
’I think the good news is that there has been a growing realisation that
the 30-second TV ad is not the be-all and end-all of advertising any
more,’ Shaun McIlrath, creative director at FCA!, explains. ’The
struggle is more about using all the tricks you can to get publicity for
your client’s product. But that shouldn’t just mean launching ambient
stunts with no connection at all to what you are advertising, just for
the PR effect.
’For Siemens, for example, we ran an advertising campaign that focused
on the innovation of its mobile phone products. That was the
Within that we ran an ambient campaign using black-cab drivers, who we
paid to drop mentions of the phone into the conversation with their
It was the sort of thing that we hoped would be talked and written
about, but the fact is that it also made sense within that overall
product message of innovation. And I think that is important for any
’Many more clients are briefing for a campaign idea these days, not just
for a TV ad,’ Gary Fraser, an art director at Claydon Heeley, explains.
’That’s where ambient can come in, because agencies are looking for all
sorts of ways, in all sorts of media, to interpret that brief.’ Fraser
was behind a recent campaign for Organics Shampoo in which he assembled
open-air showers at London’s Vauxhall roundabout and persuaded Melinda
Messenger to shower in them.
Other recent headline-grabbing ambient executions have also demonstrated
equally astute targeting and understanding of the execution’s place
within the overall campaign. When Emap Radio wanted to rebrand its Kiss
FM dance music stations in eight northern cities, under the common name,
Big City, the brief to the media agency, Rocket, insisted that the
campaign target young men in their mid-20s. Rather than follow the rest
of the advertising world straight into FHM or Loaded, the agency opted
to create its own ambient opportunity.
Its solution bordered on the bizarre.
It involved heat sensitive stickers being placed inside urinals in pubs
and clubs across the north of England. As the target males paused before
relieving themselves, famous faces such as David Beckham and Liam and
Noel Gallagher would appear, complete with suitably rude messages. ’Give
Beckham a warm welcome’, was a personal favourite.
And this campaign has lived on in the media far longer than the stickers
themselves. Increasingly, though, that PR benefit is just a pleasant
bonus - with the fragmented state of mainstream media, the men’s
washroom is just about the most cost-effective place to target 18- to
24-year-old men. And that, as much as the novelty of the execution or
the excitement of the planning, is why ambient media are here to stay.