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The ad industry is redefining "public" television.

With people fast-forwarding faster than ever through TV commercials at home, advertising companies have taken their campaigns out into the open.

Perhaps you've noticed: Flat-panel screens filled with spots plugging cars, orthodontists and face-lifts are everywhere these days. They greet you at the grocery store, the coffeehouse, the bank and the service station.

Most recently they've popped up in restrooms, mounted on hand dryers.

And no, you can't change the channel.

"Consumers want control," said Eli Portnoy, founder of the Portnoy Group, a brand strategy consultancy. So naturally, "marketers are trying to wrestle control away."

It's another round in the cat-and-mouse game between Americans with disposable income and the advertisers more desperate than ever to reach them, now that the digital video recorder has become so popular. Estimates are that about 20% of U.S. households have DVRs, which allow program-watching at the expense of ads, because ads can be zipped through with the simple pressure of a finger on a button.

"Everybody's flipping the channel," said Kristine Hernandez, a director of ImpressionAire Media, which made the hand dryers with built-in digital screens that were installed in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach restaurants, where they promote rental cars and drink specials. "You have to capture their attention."

In this new world, the risk is that TV screens in public places will fade into the background if they show nothing but boring ads. So in many cases, promotions are rotated with local news, weather and entertainment.

That way, advertisers can say they're providing a service.

"For better or worse, we live in a time-crunched society," said Mike DiFranza, chairman of the Out-of-Home Video Advertising Bureau. "If you're waiting in line, it's a waste of time. But if you can look up information about what's going on in the world, you're kept informed."

Interestingly, some people are buying it.

"It's nice to have something to look at," said Amanda Bender, a 50-year-old social services worker, about the screen mounted on the wall of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf she frequents in Los Angeles' mid-Wilshire district.

On the other hand, ad omnipresence is pushing some over the edge.

"I'm just so overwhelmed by it," said Kendra Miller, a 26-year-old business manager who felt assaulted by a flat-panel TV staring down at her from the wall of Albertson's in Culver City as she was getting ready to check out.

Miller is a person the industry wants to reach. She has stopped going to movie theaters because she can't stand the ads they run before the film starts. Pop-up Web ads pester her at work — and now, annoyingly, she's got TV commercials in her supermarket.

"They put them in places you can't escape," she complained.

No kidding. The amount spent on the "alternative out-of-home media" advertising category, which includes digital screens in stores, movie theaters and elevators (but not roadside billboards), grew 27% in 2006 to $1.69 billion, according to PQ Media Research.

"Everyone is saying this is the next frontier," said George Wishart, global managing director of Nielsen In-Store, which began measuring the audience for these sorts of ads earlier this month.

The boom has been fueled in part by technology. The price of flat-panel digital screens has fallen more than a third in the last two years, according to iSuppli Corp., an El Segundo-based consulting firm.

And the software used to create on-screen ads has become more reliable. Advertisers can remotely change the messages displayed depending on the weather, special promotions or the popularity of certain items.

At Best Buy, Costco and other major retailers, most of the ads on the "in-store screens," as they're called, are for items that can be bought right then and there. The spots are produced by Premier Retail Networks Corp., a San Francisco company that has installed 200,000 screens in 6,500 stores around the country.

An ad on a PRN screen might go like this: "Wondering what to make for dinner tonight? Think about lemon pepper halibut…." Then the recipe and ingredients will be listed, and the viewer, hopefully, will buy those ingredients.

PRN claims success, saying research shows that 42% of shoppers can recall a brand they've seen on in-store screens — about double the rate that studies have found for TV commercials. And, the company says, the cost of reaching 1,000 customers through in-store screens is about $12 — roughly the same as it would be to advertise on premium cable.

In any event, "in-home isn't effective anymore" for advertisers, said Mike Quinn, senior vice president of marketing, research and new product development at PRN. "They want to advertise where their products are sold."

As for the flat-panels in places like Jack in the Box and Jiffy Lube — which are installed by Ripple Networks Inc., an El Segundo-based provider of digital entertainment and news — they target people waiting in line, not shopping. So on these screens, ads for local real estate agents, the Hollywood Bowl and even national companies like Orbitz are inserted between clips of celebrity news from E!, horoscopes, snowboarding videos and sports highlights. Ripple charges $100 per screen for a month's worth of ads. In these cases, part of that revenue usually goes to the retailer.

Last year, Dean Dunlap, now the associate media director for DGWB, bought time on screens in several Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf stores for Southern California Land Rover dealers through Ripple.

"We felt that it was another way to get people to think about Land Rover as they start their day," he said.

Younger Americans are quicker to embrace ad-filled digital screens in public places, said Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of media psychology at Cal State L.A. They're accustomed to having digital music players, PDAs and cellphones at their fingertips, and they "don't want to be alone with their thoughts."

Well, other people do. Troy Davenbaugh, 42, of West Los Angeles is one of the elusive consumers trying to hide from advertisers. He doesn't own a TV. When he does watch a show on his roommate's set, he can skip through ads with TiVo.

The digital screens that popped up in his local Albertson's ticked him off.

"They're more annoying than anything," he said. "When I come here, I come here to shop. I'm turned off by anything being constantly blasted at me — it just becomes too much."

For some, it's less than that.

As Jeffrey Weiner browsed through Albertson's, he was asked what he thought about the food ads blinking on the screen suspended above the produce section.

His response: "What screen?"


Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times. May 27, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.