Bus Riders and Invasive Advertising

How futuristic novelty ads unfairly target and take advantage of commuters who can't escape.

Image
Colle + McVoy

Public transportation users may be accustomed to an odd smell from time to time, but bus riders in Seoul, South Korea, were recently exposed to a different league of olfactory input. Devices installed on public buses in that city were programmed to release a coffee-like fragrance whenever the Dunkin' Donuts jingle played over bus speakers. Upon exiting the bus, riders would see Dunkin' Donuts billboards and Dunkin' Donuts stores. As The Atlantic's Megan Garber notes, the campaign worked. Sales at Dunkin' Donuts outlets near those bus stops increased 29 percent earlier this year.

Garber writes:

[A]s an ad tactic, scent is particularly aggressive. It's the physicality of the thing, sure - the fact that scent makes literal consumers of us - but it's also the invasiveness. We advertisees have developed fairly sophisticated methods of avoiding ads as sensory intakes: we tune out unpleasant sounds with headphones, we avert our eyes from unpleasant images. Scent, however, is harder to ignore. And - Proustian memory! - it's also harder to forget.

As my colleague John Metcalfe recently reporterd, marketers are increasingly turning to the power of smellvertising, and it's easy to see why buses are a perfect target for these efforts. The problem with this advertisement – and, as we'll see, many others like it – is that it victimizes the bus rider. This active and unavoidable invasion into the public space targets public transit users who are captive prisoners of its impositions, trapped and subjected to a smell that, unlike all those other bus smells, has a specific goal in mind. The bus rider – reliant on the bus and trapped within it until the right stop – is unavoidably exposed to the smell and its marketing aims.

Advertising agencies have also taken to transforming bus stops into elaborate ad-objects. One campaign advertising breakfast sandwiches at a coffee chain transformed Minnesota bus stops into oversized ovens that appeared to be heating up pictures of those sandwiches. Actual heaters were installed, which helped lure bus riders into the fake oven.

Another campaign coated bus stop posters with the loop side of Velcro to literally grab and hold onto people who leaned against them as they were waiting for their bus to arrive. In Australia, bus riders waiting at stops received stalker-ish text messages stating "Im watching u. Ur at the [bus stop location]." And then, about 30 seconds later, another message was sent: "Big Brother is back. 7 PM weeknights on TEN" – an ad for the reality TV show Big Brother, playing on a local television network.

That these efforts target bus riders – a population which, overall, tends to have lower incomes and live under greater economic pressures – comes off as a bit predatory, doesn't it? Car commuters are of course not immune to advertising, passing countless billboards and outdoor advertisements on their daily drives. But there's a degree of separation between the private car user and the advertisement. The impact is smaller, and there's almost no element of participation. It's hard not to feel a little demeaned or taken advantage of when you're waiting at a bus stop shaped like a toaster oven, or trapped inside a moving vehicle that's blasting coffee fragrance in your face.

Those South Korean buses seem to have been able to convince people to wander over to the closest Dunkin' Donuts. It's not particularly complex engineering, but the power of smell-suggestion does seem to work in some cases. But what if the engineering of people's minds becomes more complex, more effective, more undetectable?

No, I say, to all you bus riders, victimized too long by a marketing machine that belittles you. Rise up, bus rider! You are not a warm and toasty breakfast sandwich! Nor must you be accosted with the engineered and disembodied scent of mediocre coffee! Though your transit systems will probably always rely on the additional revenue provided by advertisements, you don't have to be part of their ad campaign or a helpless victim of whatever smells or tastes or mind-controlling future ads these marketers so cleverly devise to hawk. But unless you do or say something to the transit agencies allowing advertisers to commit these acts, their crimes will continue to be perpetrated against you.

Image credit: Colle + McVoy

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.