Advertising and eyeballs were two nouns linked in my mind well before Internet marketers started spouting them. I always associate them with the reference in “The Great Gatsby” to the dilapidated billboard with the all-seeing eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg — an image that literature professors swoon over, but which I tend to ascribe to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s probably sipping immoderately from a flask of whiskey while spotting an actual abandoned billboard on a drive to Long Island Sound.
This, however, brings travel into the mix. Advertising, eyeballs and travel. Somebody has figured out that those three concepts are linked every time we get on an airplane. And now, perhaps inexorably, the spirit of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s eyeballs peers up from the little billboard of an airline tray table.
For a couple of years, tray tables in coach sections of US Airways have carried advertising. After US Airways merged with America West in late 2005, tray tables at coach seats in about 350 airplanes had ads.
Initial worries that such advertising would annoy passengers have now been allayed, the airline and its advertising partner say. Research indicates a higher-than-expected number of passengers like and retain messages from tray table advertising, they say.
Brand Connections, the New York marketing company that provides the laminated tray table ads for US Airways, plans to expand the ads to first-class seats, starting this spring.
According to Travis Christ, the airline’s marketing vice president, ads in first class will create “540,000 new tray table opportunities per month,” in addition to the 6 million now available each month in coach seats.
Many airlines use advertising, but so far only US Airways does so on something as in-your-face as a tray table. Airlines, though, are increasingly placing advertising on napkins, ticket jacket folders, and even air-sickness bags. In Europe and Asia, some small airlines put ads on overhead bins, and a few even have big ads painted on exterior fuselages.
Airlines in the United States have been watching the US Airways experiment carefully, said Brian Martin, the 34-year-old founder and chief executive of Brand Connections, which also does advertising and brand promotion in hotel rooms and at outdoor sports sites like ski resorts and golf driving ranges.
Thirty-five percent of airline travelers have household incomes over $100,000 a year, nearly double the percentage of the population in general. And passengers on a domestic flight are a captive audience for an average of two and a half hours. Even hard-charging Type A business travelers eventually put aside the laptop or spreadsheets and “chill,” Mr. Martin said.
“In the past, the only way to reach them was through the in-flight magazine,” he said. But not many people actually look at the magazine. When they do, he said, they find ad clutter, not a focused message. In-flight entertainment screens sometimes carry ads, but “there’s always another one coming along in 60 seconds,” Mr. Martin said. Besides, on most airlines, in-flight monitors are difficult to see and the bland, heavily edited movies they offer are easy to avoid.
About six months ago, Brand Connections bought a small company, Sky Media, which, he said, had the exclusive North American patent for “wrapping a tray table” with a heavy laminated ad. Sky Media had the contract with US Airways.
He said Brand Connections was talking with several other domestic airlines about the tray table ads.
Both he and US Airways say the ads have generated overwhelmingly positive reaction, primarily because they are all creatively designed to convey information, often with lots of words rather than the heavily attention-seeking graphics associated with magazines. Clients have included Mercedes-Benz, Bose, Microsoft, Bank of America, Verizon and an array of national consumer products.
As the ads migrate to the premium seats, many will probably be especially designed for first class, “geared to reaching executives who can pull the trigger” on corporate purchases, Mr. Martin said. He said he expected in-flight ads to be eventually integrated into larger campaigns reaching into hotel rooms and airports, sometimes linked to promotional offers and products.
Advertisers are increasingly receptive, Mr. Christ said, adding: “In the beginning, it was difficult to get advertisers to go along because it was nontraditional. The metrics didn’t match up to the way they typically measure advertising.”
I asked him how far this could go, meaning a captive audience is not just exposed to tray tables — the whole airplane can be seen as a billboard. And subway cars have been festooned with overhead ads since Teddy Roosevelt was president.
“We would draw the line at things like ads on overhead bins,” Mr. Christ said.
Joe Sharkey, The New York Times. March 6, 2007
Copyright © 2007 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.