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There's no escaping today's ad-meisters

Take a seat at the Montgomery Mall food court, and you immediately find yourself staring at an ad. Not on the table, but in it.

"I'm sitting here eating lunch," college student Bill Deger of Perkasie said between slugs of a soda. "And right below me is an ad for a debit card."

Inserting a poster-size, plastic-encased pitch into a table top is just one new way in which advertisers are trying to seize your attention - and a sly one, because 35 percent of shoppers visit a mall's food court, sitting an average of 25 minutes.

No medium snags everyone anymore. Today's fragmented market is pushing ads not just onto the computer atop your desk, the cell phone in your bag, and the BlackBerry on your belt, but into all sorts of unexpected spaces and places not traditionally seen as venues:

Aboard school buses. On fruit. In novels, sometimes integrated into the plot. On walls above urinals, on stadium turnstiles, on supermarket floors, and along the narrow tops of basketball backboards, best seen in overhead shots during TV replays.

"Brands are looking to surround the consumer and surprise the consumer," said Dilys Tosteson Garcia, chief executive officer of La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, a Los Angeles ad agency.

So if you feel as if you can't walk out your front door without being pitched, spun or sold, you're not paranoid. They really are after you. American businesses expect to spend a record sum on advertising this year: $150.3 billion. That's twice the gross domestic product of Peru.

Clear Channel Radio is contemplating the idea of "blinks" - ads of precisely one second, just long enough for a sound or snippet of a jingle, according to Advertising Age. In April, USA Network experimented with one-minute commercial breaks in the hope that TV viewers would find a frenzied dash to the kitchen not worth the effort.

Ads now arrive not just in the mail but on it. In May, the Postal Service approved a trial program allowing businesses to design custom postage. Hewlett-Packard, the first to sign up, is placing images of its logo, its founders, and the garage where the company started in the spot where a stamp would go.

Companies such as Burger King pay to place their insignias in the virtual cityscapes and sports stadiums of video games. Even gas stations have become marketing platforms, ads for Gatorade stamped on nozzles and pitches for nail salons hung from hoses. In some cities, commercials are delivered to motorists on TV monitors at the pumps.

"Empty space is seen as the enemy," said Robert Smith of Robert Smith & Associates, an Illinois public relations firm. "Heck, in the future, toilet paper will be free because it will have ads all over it."

Actually, firms already print ads on bathroom tissue, risking that consumers might find the gimmick a bit, well, cheeky.

"It's pervasive - and my suspicion is a lot of it is tuned out," said Charles Brown, chairman of the sociology and anthropology department at Albright College in Reading. "Human beings tend to be very selective in terms of the information they consume."

People unconsciously learn to ignore some advertising, he said. Consider how computer-users automatically delete pop-up ads. Or the way TV watchers leave the room during commercials.

"It's such a barrage of ads that my mind mostly tunes it out," said Jeffrey Chou, an Abington schoolteacher. "Unless it appears in an odd place."

Which helps to explain why advertisers covet new venues.

The traditional media market hasn't splintered - it's been atomized. Rudolph Magnani of Magnani Continuum Marketing in Chicago says companies face a threefold challenge: to maintain a presence in old-guard media such as newspapers and TV; to reach niche markets through new vehicles such as cell phones, MP3 players and iPods; and to overcome technology such as TiVo and video-on-demand that lets viewers avoid commercials.

"You know what I've noticed that I hate?" said Conshohocken writer Susan Magee. "You can zap the commercial, and now the advertisers are doing more product placements."

The other night, she watched The Closer, sponsored by Audi. During the police drama, the detectives paused to admire a particular car - an Audi, naturally.

Product-placement has been around forever. It's no accident that Pepsi cans sit on the American Idol judges' dais. But now products are digitally inserted into scenes after shooting ends.

"The average consumer is bombarded with well over 1,000 advertising messages per day," said Don Zihlman, president of DRZ Marketing & Design, a Maine ad agency. "Businesses are desperate to stand out."

One New York firm got the idea to place pitches where people plug in: electrical outlets. Bradley & Montgomery Advertising put Chase bank ads on 60 outlets at Indianapolis International Airport. The sell: "We empower businesses, right down to their batteries."

The concept started as a joke, when partner Scott Montgomery and his coworkers couldn't find a working airport outlet. Then they thought: when folks stop to recharge their cell phones and computers, why not remind them of opportunities offered by Chase?

Ads are everywhere, said Peter Shankman, CEO of New York's Geek Factory public-relations firm, because marketers are desperate. "The advertiser is really getting TiVoed out," he said.

Executives lament "clutter," the blur created by thousands of messages simultaneously competing for attention, and ponder how to break through. Some obsess over finding that place where no ad has gone before.

"It's all fear," said Bryan Greenberg, associate professor of marketing at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County.

Does the saturation work?

Phyllis Nellis, a free-lance copy writer in Media, said she tends to ignore most advertising, but if she notices a particularly ingenious pitch she'll take a moment to savor it.

"I admire the craft," she said. "Will it convince me to buy? Not necessarily."


Jeff Gammage, The Philadelphia Inquirer. July 7, 2006

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