Selling The Subway

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To celebrate the 100th anniversary of NYC's subway system in 2004, WNYC's Dan Blumberg focused on one of the more overlooked aspects of the transit system.

The average time spent on a subway train is 25 minutes. So what do you do to entertain yourself? You read the newspaper, pay your bills, or clip your nails. But then what? Well, just as boredom consumes you, you might gaze up at the advertisements and pray for some eye candy.

Riding an uptown 4 Train, messenger Daniel Lewis says the ads help keep him in his "right state of mind."

LEWIS: It’s something to do, something to look at… it’s better than looking at people, because some people do get agitated… this is New York man.

Real Estate worker Beth Glick sees the ads as an escape.

GLICK: when it’s packed in here and hectic and it’s funny to look at the ones where you’re sitting alone at the beach and when someone’s an inch from your face and you want to be somewhere else, not on the subway, squished like a sardine.

VERDE: There are few places where you have a closed in audiences like that… and not only that it changes readily.

Ellis Verde, President of Devito/Verde advertising says subway ads offer a unique opportunity.

VERDE: So you get all the capabilities of out of home

That’s adspeak for when you’re not vegging out on the couch –

VERDE: It’s literally in your face sometimes… but at the same time it isn’t quick… it’s slower, so it gives you the best of both worlds.

Many of the ads Verde has designed, like those for Daffy’s clothing store, include a clever turn of phrase, like – Getting Great Prices on Designer Clothes no longer takes a Miracle on 34th Street. That one ran at the Herald Square station. Verde says subway ads should combine the brashness of a highway billboard with the heavier content of a magazine ad.

VERDE: It has to be used smartly, though. It has to give people a smile.

One ad that made people smile… and probably made them cringe, too was a 1997 campaign by Bristol Myers Squib for an anti-bacterial lotion.

It featured phrases like: "You are the 423rd person to touch that pole today…." Or "The turnstiles have at least 11,700,000 germs. (Have a nice day.)"

Another advertiser has been wishing riders a nice day for over twenty years.

He features rainbows, a broad smile and a list of services to make them look and feel better.

ZIZMOR: And I see all the patients personally

He is "board certified dermatologist" Dr. Jonathan Zizmor. But, you can call him Dr. Z.

His ads may not have won any design awards, but they’ve been effective ever since first going up around the corner from his office in the Hunter College Station.

ZIZMOR: …Put up one poster and the first day – you know most advertising doesn’t work right away – and the first day – one person actually showed up in the office as a patient. It’s remarkable

Zizmor says for years he was the only dermatologist running ads on the subway, but eventually he got some competition. So he tweaked his ads a bit and "spoke from the heart."

ZIZMOR: People want to see a face, so that’s when I put my face up, it wasn’t for my ego, for my face, get a kick out of it, but the face worked… cuz the subway is dehumanizing and people they see a face.

Zizmor says his first ad cost him $5 / month. Of course that was in the early 80’s when graphiti was the dominant subway artform. Nowadays you’ll need $38,000 to buy 200 subway platform ads for a month. Subway cars are more expensive – ranging from about 44-thousand dollars a month for a limited run to 382-thousand to brand the entire car.

Jodi Senese sold ads at New York Subways Advertising Company for years until Viacom bought the concession for the MTA. Now an Executive Vice President at Viacom, she says you can sell just about anything on the subway.

SENESE: anything from financial to packaged goods to fashion, airlines… not a category that was inappropriate, at one point we thought lawnmowers wouldn’t work, but with tremendous influx of commuters… beginning to think lawnmower might be a viable category

Lawnmowers ads on the subway? So what else is next? digital lawnmower ads on the subway.

Yes, Senese says digital ads are the next frontier. That means McDonald’s could advertise its egg McMuffin during the morning rush and its Big Mac in the afternoons without ever physically changing its ad. The MTA is also considering going the way of professional sports teams and selling the naming rights to some stations.

It’s a far cry from the days when Schmulka Berstein implored riders to get "Kosher cold cuts" at their local delicatessens. Or when riders would rip off "take ones" from the subway ads to remember phone numbers. Or when New York Subways Advertising created a promotional video – with a Howie Cosell sound-alike – to promote the great opportunity below.

PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: …visit your subway ads representative. They want to be your friend!

For WNYC, I’m Dan Blumberg.