Ambient media has been slammed as intrusive and invasive, and is
often condemned as a guerrilla marketing tactic. So it would hardly be
surprising if an advertising form which ambushes an unwitting public in
their few commercially unadulterated moments, would get our backs
In fact, evidence suggests that the opposite is true.
According to the consumer consultancy, the Henley Centre, people
generally like ambient media. Most ambient ads reach people in
’downtime’, which means that far from forcing their way into the
consciousness at the same time as other information, it can brighten up
a boring moment.
So, unlike TV advertising - which ruthlessly interrupts Doctor Zhivago
just when the tears are welling, or dampens the comedy of Carry On up
the Khyber - ambient reaches the consumer when he or she might otherwise
be trying to avoid catching a fellow passenger’s eye on the bus or when
bored to death with traipsing up and down a supermarket aisle.
The Henley Centre reached this conclusion using a profiling method
called ’mode-based segmentation’. Using this method of assessing how we
react to ads, the general public are not accounted for merely as members
of class, age and geographical groupings. They are also classified by
’The same consumer can vary in behaviour more on two different occasions
than two different consumers on the same occasion,’ Michelle Singer, a
consultant at the Henley Centre, says. ’We are different animals when
we’re shopping, from when we’re working or when we’re relaxing.’
Ambient ads are perfectly placed to catch people unaware. But even when
they ambush the consumer, Singer argues that the right ad will still be
Some ads have wormed their way into the most traditional bastions of our
cultural identity. When black cabs were first used as hoardings, there
was trepidation in the ranks. Taxi Media, the company that first went
into the market, was given a year to trial the product to see how it
would go down with the Londoner in the street. Far from being shunned,
the taxis were in demand, with reported scuffles breaking out at taxi
ranks as people competed for the cab with the Evening Standard
Ambient media’s edge lies in capturing the consumer at the right
A branded mousemat sitting by a PC, with an internet address for an
online lingerie site, has to be a case of good timing. The same address
on an ad in a magazine already stuffed full of beauty and fashion tips
is arguably less noticeable.
And it’s that spirit which is behind FCA!’s award-winning work for the
Welsh Tourist Board, with its ’Clean air is just two hours away’ message
etched on the back of a filthy van.
The idea that mood affects our receptiveness has not gone unnoticed by
agencies. Hicklin Slade is one of an increasing number of consultancies
and agencies which pitch themselves as platform neutral. Rather than
look at straight-forward demographics and restrict itself to traditional
means of reaching an audience, it goes about ’finding the moment’. It
takes the target consumer and then thinks through all their schedules as
well as their inclinations before advising on how to approach the
The joy of what is now referred to as the ’sixth medium’ lies in this
ability to target ads so tightly that they are very likely to hit the
There is, of course, potential for clever positioning to back fire. The
Media Vehicle, which sells advertising in supermarkets, has worked with
many major retailers who were concerned that customers might take
umbrage at being advertised to in-store. But research told otherwise.
Since shoppers are already in spending mode, another sales message is
just par for the course. Moreover, if it strikes the right chord, it can
entertain the shopper.
According to research by Concord, almost half of the London shoppers
canvassed in the street said that they actively liked to be surprised by
different sorts of media. Only a handful took offence.
One thirty-something even admired the McDonald’s liveried steps, saying:
’They’re better to look at than plain steps.’ Another commented:
’They’re catchy and fun. London is kind of grey.’
It’s worth remembering that ambient includes some of the oldest forms of
broadcast. Far from invading our ad-free moments, it’s always been
there. Sandwich boards are just a step on from the town crier. And the
sandwich board, beer mat or taxi-back have the added democratic effect
of allowing advertisers with the smallest budget to make an impact on
the world at large.