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Subway ads' tunnel vision


Still images mounted in a sequence are seen as a movie by transit riders

Apr. 10, 2006. 06:54 AM

Watch for the light � not at the end but in the middle.

A new form of advertising � based on century-old technology � is being used in dark subway tunnels to deliver moving pictures to millions of commuters.

It’s already turning heads, literally, in New York, Hong Kong and Mexico City.

Now, the Toronto Transit System is on track to become the first Canadian operator to install the revenue-generating new medium.

“We’re looking at a September launch in Toronto,” said Robert Walker, president of SideTrack Technologies Inc. The first installation is planned for the Yonge St. line between the high-traffic College and Dundas stations.

The TTC says it is currently evaluating SideTrack’s system to ensure it doesn’t disrupt operations or compromise safety.

“We have to make sure it doesn’t affect our signalling system,” said Grant Waddell, the transit official in charge of managing the TTC’s advertising contract. The TTC’s signalling system differs somewhat from those used by other transit operators, he explained.

The next step would be a pilot project, Waddell said.

The idea isn’t new. But the declining cost of digital printing and the waning power of television as an advertising vehicle have made the medium more attractive to advertisers, Walker explains.

SideTrack, based in Winnipeg, is one of two companies in North America that serve this emerging market. The other, based in New York, is Sub-Media LLC.

Each uses a slightly different, patented technology. Both rely on something called the “persistence of vision,” which tricks the mind into thinking a series of static images is moving.

Think of the flipbooks you enjoyed as a kid.

SideTrack uses a technology most closely associated with the movie projector. A series of static images is rapidly illuminated as the subway train roars past.

Sub-Media uses a concept as old as the Zoetrope, a Victorian contraption that sent a series of static images whirling past a narrow slit, explains chief executive officer Peter Corrigan.

But what the riders see is basically the same. The darkened subway tunnel is suddenly illuminated by a series of moving images, which transit riders view through the train’s windows.

For unsuspecting riders, the effect can be quite startling the first time.

“People actually gasped and some got off the train at the next station and went back to see it again,” Walker says of SideTrack’s first installation in Boston. “Even now, a year and a half later, people nudge each other when they go by.”

To view this unusual technology in action, go to the companies’ shared web site at and click on the ads.

The two companies compete for space in the tubes but co-operate on marketing and selling each other’s installations. That way they can offer advertisers the broadest reach, they said.

Between them, they have so far signed up six transit systems in North America, more if you count Europe and Asia.

SideTrack has systems in Boston, San Francisco, Rio de Janiero, Mexico City, and Monterrey, Mexico.

Sub-Media has installations in New York, Atlanta, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

The market is potentially huge. Altogether, the world’s subway systems provide a captive audience of 80 million viewers. And many of them have money to spend.

Far from the image of the typical transit rider as someone who can barely afford a car, market research shows many are above average in education and income, the companies said.

In fact, car brands, including the Lexus and Hummer, have been among the earliest adopters of the technology, partly because it allows them to “re-purpose” content they’ve already developed for television, the companies said.

As television loses its power to sell, advertisers are looking for other ways to amortize the cost of creating the ads over more media.

“Thirty years ago you could reach 80 per cent of your audience by advertising on all three major U.S. networks,” Corrigan explains. “You can’t do that any more.”

Most car ads involve moving images. So, as a form of outdoor advertising, tunnel ads have a considerable edge over billboards and posters, the ad companies said.

“The ad community in Toronto is waiting with baited breath. We’ve got a couple of big brands who have been with us from the start. We’ll be sold out right off the bat,” Walker says.

Transit systems like the new medium because it brings in additional revenues, the companies said. Most are struggling as governments strain to keep up with rising costs, and riders resist fare hikes, the companies said.

Critics have complained the advertisers’ contribution is relatively low. A typical tunnel ad contract can generate $1 million a year in revenues for the transit authority. But that’s a drop in the bucket for a system like Toronto’s, infrastructure that costs $1 billion a year to supply.

The fact that the only two suppliers co-operate on marketing and sales raises doubts about how much clout the transit authorities have in negotiating prices.

The companies say the guaranteed minimums are just a starting point. The transit authorities can earn more if revenues exceed projections.

“It’s not going to solve their woes. But it is another source of revenue,” Corrigan says.

As a source of transit funding, advertising of all kinds is rising in value, the TTC’s Waddell says.

The latest seven-year contract it signed with Viacom, which acts as the middleman, is worth $93 million over seven years, Waddell says.

Walker said the idea came to him while riding a subway train in Paris. He was working in marketing and business development for an aerospace firm at the time.

He approached his friend Brad Caruk, an animator, to ask if there was a way to do it. That was five years ago.

Around the same time, Sub-Media was also getting started. Inevitably, the two companies stumbled across each other.

Another reason the time was ripe for the technology, says Walker, is the declining cost of digital printing.

Unlike billboards, which use the same mass-produced image over and over again, tunnel ads require hundreds of different images to create the effect of movement.

The companies say the ads enjoy very high recall rates even three months after they’ve started rolling.

Whether TTC riders will enjoy the new medium, once the novelty wears off, remains to be seen.