Save us from the ads!

Updated: Jan 20 2007, 06:26am hrs
Add this to the endangered list: blank spaces. Advertisers seem determined to fill every last one of them. Supermarket eggs have been stamped with the name of a new CBS show. Subway turnstiles bear messages from Geico auto insurance. Chinese food cartons promote Continental Airways. US Airways is selling ads on motion sickness bags. And the trays used in airport security lines have been hawking Rolodexes.

Marketers used to try their hardest to reach people at home, when they were watching TV or reading newspapers or magazines. But consumers' viewing and reading habits are so scattershot now that many marketers say the best way to reach time-pressed consumers is to try to catch their eye at literally every turn.

"We never know where the consumer is going to be at any point in time, so we have to find a way to be everywhere," said Linda Kaplan Thaler, chief executive of a New York ad agency . "Ubiquity is the new exclusivity."

No consumer, it seems, is too young. Some school buses now play radio ads meant for children. Last summer, Walt Disney advertised its "Little Einsteins" DVDs for preschoolers on the paper liners of examination tables in 2,000 pediatricians' offices, according to Supply Marketing, a company that gives doctors free supplies to use branded products.

Some people have had enough. Last month, after some "got milk" billboards started emitting the odor of chocolate chip cookies at San Francisco bus stops, many people complained, and the city told the California Milk Processing Board to turn off the smell. And this month the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey cancelled a plan to post ads for Geico, featuring its gecko mascot, at tollbooths and elsewhere around the George Washington Bridge, a deal that was valued at $3.2 million. Politicians and preservationists had raised aesthetic concerns Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day compared with up to 5,000 today. About half the 4,110 people surveyed last spring by Yankelovich said they thought marketing and advertising today was out of control.

Some are taking heed, calling the placement of ads everywhere a waste of money. "What all marketers are dealing with is an absolute sensory overload," said Gretchen Hofmann, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Universal Orlando Resort. The landscape is "overly saturated" as companies press harder to make their products stand out, she said.

Outright advertising is just one contributing factor. The feeling of ubiquity may also be fueled by spam e-mail messages and the increasing use of name-brand items in TV shows and movies, a trend known as product placement. Plus, companies are finding new ways to offer free services to people who agree to view their ads, particularly on the Internet or on cell phones.

More is on the horizon. Old-fashioned billboards are being converted to digital screens. They allow advertisers to change messages frequently from remote computers, timing their pitches to sales events or the hour of the day. The trend may lead to more showdowns as civic pride is affronted.Says Barbara Thomason, of the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce, of scores of digital signs she has noticed popping up in the last few years "They're making our community look like Las Vegas,".

NY Times / Louise Story