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It's an ad, ad, ad world
By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 7/8/2001
Is nowhere safe?
That's the question Arthur MacNeil was pondering after his dinner of
shrimp with lobster sauce last week, when a fortune cookie packed more
than the usual sage advice.
But first things first. Before he even sat down with the shrimp, MacNeil
was already fatigued by the daily visual assaults of the urban landscape.
After all, he lives in Charles River Park, the building that proclaims to
drivers idling in Storrow Drive traffic, ''If you lived here, you'd be
The construction manager, 44, was hoping to be soothed by a day trip to
New Hampshire on the Fourth of July, a ramble with lots of trees and no
But when he stopped for gas at a Shell station in Londonderry, a little
video monitor on the pump flashed at him, inviting him inside the market
to buy the National Enquirer.
On his way home, MacNeil whizzed by countless cars signed up to use Fast
Lane to pay tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike and Tobin Bridge. In each
car, affixed to the windshield, was the transponder bearing the logo for
Fleet bank, forever superimposed over the passing landscape.
Then, Thursday night, MacNeil and his ''other half,'' Janet Daly, went
for dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, Great Chow in Quincy.
When the two cracked open their fortune cookies, Daly's had an extra
surprise: an ad on one side for a dot-com. ''Save a FORTUNE ... at
Half.com!'' it proclaimed in tiny black print.
''I think it's a little much,'' MacNeil complained. ''Less is more.''
Oh, but the ad execs will beg to differ.
That's why Boston will soon see 342 new pieces of ''street furniture,''
including public toilets, all free of cost for the city thanks to the
commercial posters they'll sport.
Those poster advertisements are fairly traditional in form, even if the
toilets and bus shelters they will adorn are not. But as they coincide
with the new fortune-cookies-cum-ad-space, many Bostonians are wondering:
Is there any frontier left in marketing?
Buy a navel orange and the little sticker on it may tell you about the
video release of ''How the Grinch Stole Christmas.''
Ask for a receipt at a turnpike toll booth, and you're liable to get a
coupon for the Beantown Whale Watch.
Step into an elevator at the Prudential, the video screen will share with
you a Dunkin' Donuts ad along with the weather report.
Then there's the highway genre. MBTA buses and Green Line cars are
shrink-wrapped in gargantuan vinyl advertisements for Monster.com or
American Express Blue.
There are companies who will pay you several hundred dollars a month to
do the same thing to your own car. And Republican lawmakers last month
introduced bills aimed at allowing Massachusetts school committees to
sell ad space on the sides of school buses.
Have you heard about the entrepreneur who presses Skippy Peanut Butter
and Snapple ads into the sand of New Jersey beaches? Or the new animated
Coca-Cola ads running this summer in the tunnels of the Atlanta subway
system? What about the company now negotiating to digitally place extra
products into reruns of ''Law and Order''?
Most of us don't even blink anymore when we see, say, an ad for Midori
liqueur in the bathroom stall of a bar. But they are signs, quite
literally, of our media-saturated times, when an undivided bit of a
consumer's attention span is a precious commodity.
InSite Advertising Inc., a company that places such restroom ads, says it
bluntly on its Web page: ''We Own Space That Is Hard To Avoid and
Impossible to Ignore.''
Or, says Paul Slagle, vice president for sales and marketing at Princeton
Video Image, the company behind the ''Law and Order'' product placement
idea, ''People are recognizing we are living in a branded world these
days. To pretend otherwise is kind of disingenuous.''
Even some of the minds behind these ''guerrilla'' or ''ambient''
advertising concepts see a downside to the branded world.
''It's kind of unfortunate that you really do see ads everywhere you
look, and now it's going to be in your fortune cookie,'' said James Wong,
database manager of Brooklyn-based Wonton Food Inc.
Half.com approached Wonton Foods with the idea, seeking a sure-fire
attention-grabber. There's been a few snags with some diners, perhaps too
stuffed to read the small print (''Go to Half.com to Save $5''),
demanding $5 off their meal.
But the two companies are retooling the text, and plan to soon produce a
million fortune cookies a day with the message. And Wong said Wonton Food
is eager to make deals with other advertisers.
Not even a commercial fortune cookie message surprises Kalle Lasn, editor
of Adbusters magazine, a slick anticorporate journal. Lasn said that
every year he sees more encroachment of advertising in new arenas.
''There are 3,000 marketing messages a day seeping into the average North
American brain,'' Lasn said. ''That's what I call a toxic culture.
''We've all been caught in a kind of postmodern hall of mirrors,'' he
''Nature gave us a lot of quiet. But in our electronic generation, things
are very cluttered, very full. Our peace is really being taken away from
But the question remains if most Americans actually mind finding
marketing messages on their food or in the sand between their toes.
Perhaps they prefer having a diversion to being left to their own
Captivate Network Inc., of Westford, points to a study giving their
elevator monitors a 94 percent approval rating.
''If you think of the competition of staring at your screen or staring at
your watch, it makes the ride a lot more enjoyable,'' said Captivate
spokeswoman Suzanne Griffin.
Back at Great Chow in Quincy, Daly disagreed with her naysaying ''other
half'' about the fortune ad. ''I think it's clever and cute,'' she said.
''It's a distraction. The whole point of a fortune cookie is a
Lasn, the Adbusters editor, allows that you can't blame the advertisers
for doing anything they can to get noticed. It would take a grass-roots
movement, he said, to demand a scaling back of the media onslaught.
In the meantime, it's a free-for-all.
''Why should I have any regrets?'' said Irv Weinhaus, president of the
California-based The Fruit Label Co., which has hyped movies, TV
networks, and Web sites on little stickers attached to apples and
bananas. ''I'm making a lot of money. I'm not doing anything illegal,
immoral, or fattening. We're having fun with it.''
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/8/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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