Buses Become Mobile Billboards

March 7, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Transit advertising is one way to get some mileage out of your advertising dollar because buses go where the people are and to the places people want to go.

The Rapid's 110 buses traverse six communities and cover some 450 square miles, so the ad messages they bear have the potential to really get around.

There doesn't seem to be a "typical customer" profile for bus advertising, but it seems to work well for a wide range of advertisers, said Stephen Loewenthal, president and CEO of Princeton Media.

His New Jersey-based firm specializes in transit advertising and has been working with ITP-The Rapid for three years.

"We've had medical facilities and auto dealerships, wireless companies and dot-com companies, housing developments and dentists — pretty much anything you can name as a business has advertised on buses successfully."

One thing that's unique about transit advertising over any other type is that the transit system gets 52 percent of all advertising proceeds.

"So in essence, when somebody buys outdoor advertising from us, they're contributing back to the community," Loewenthal said. "Each month we make out a check to the transit authority."

Currently, The Rapid's share of ad proceeds is about $95,000 a year, which flows into its operating budget.

The Rapid offers both interior and exterior advertising options, although advertisers cannot select specific routes to target geographic areas because the transit authority has to rotate the buses according to the system's needs, Loewenthal explained.

He said it's hard to quote advertising rates because it varies by the number of ads taken out and length of time they're run; the more, the longer, the better the rate.

There are additional costs for printing the ads as well, he noted. His company offers full design, printing and installation services for all ad placements.

Each bus has about 20 interior ad spaces that accommodate 11-inch high by 28-inch long cards fitting into frames above the windows.

Generally, interior advertising averages about $20 per card per month. Space must be purchased on a minimum three-month basis, and usually in a minimum quantity of 10 cards, which an advertiser can choose to place on 10 buses.

Exterior advertising offers more choices in terms of ad size, as well as greater exposure, and it's the form most advertisers prefer, Loewenthal said.

The driver's side of the bus, or the street side, accommodates a king-size, 30-inch-high by 12-foot-long advertisement, which rents for $245 to $285 a month.

The other side of the bus, referred to as the passenger side, accommodates a 30-inch-high by 8-foot-long space available for $220 to $250 per month.

At the rear of the bus, there's a 71-by-72-inch taillight display space available for $195 to $220 a month.

Advertising agencies tend to buy the king-sized space on the driver's side and local merchants tend to buy the taillight displays, he said.

"Advertisers' viewpoint is that the general public sees the outside of the bus and that's where they want to be.

"We have a region frequency that shows if you put up ads on 12 buses in Grand Rapids over three months, something like 96 percent of the population in Grand Rapids will have seen your ads."

Perhaps the most eye-catching way to advertise on The Rapid is the option of completely blanketing a bus — all four sides including windows — in a vinyl advertising design, which is referred to in the business as a "fully wrapped" or "illustrated" bus.

It's similar to a shrink-wrap effect but the material is applied like wallpaper. The material allows passengers to see out of the windows, but — from the outside — the windows appear to be covered by the design.

There is more cost involved in producing a fully wrapped ad, which generally runs around $1,800 a month, depending, again, on the number of total ads placed and the length of time they're up.

"It's quite dramatic because technically the customer kind of 'owns' the bus," Loewenthal said. "Nobody else's advertising is on it. It's very noticeable, and the surface of it is larger than the larger billboards in town, but less expensive overall."

Generally, he said, a wrap-around vinyl ad is kept on for at least a year because economically it doesn't make sense to put it up for any shorter length of time. The fully wrapped option appears to be growing in popularity. Loewenthal said that by April 1 four or five advertisers likely will use that option locally.

A lot of customers advertise for a year at a time, while others advertise for as little as three months, he said.

Sometimes a major advertiser will contract for just one month of advertising but will take a big position for the month, such as using 100 interior cards or perhaps 15 to 20 of the larger, exterior advertising spaces.

Ad spaces 20 inches high by 10 feet long also are available on the fiberglass tops of The Rapid's paratransit vans. Though the vans get a lot of mileage, they don't follow scheduled routes like the buses. Most advertisers like the idea of scheduled daily routes, so van advertising is a harder sell, Loewenthal said.

"But anybody who wants to make a deal on them, we're willing to talk with them," he added.

He believes there's a couple of advantages to exterior bus advertising over other outdoor advertising.

Like other outdoor advertising, it's a very good "reminder" type of message, and it helps coordinate other advertising in print and radio.

There's kind of a subliminal quality to these mobile billboard ads, too, he said.

"You might see the same bus three times a day whether you're driving around or standing still. People get a lot of impressions everyday of a certain ad without realizing it because it's just out there all the time."

Some months there's not enough space available and advertisers have to be turned away; then there are other months where advertising space goes begging, Loewenthal said.

Demand for ads tends to be strongest from March through October, but the target is to have at least 75 percent of ad space rented consistently.           

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