Once almost universally respected as rare islands of personal privacy, public bathrooms have now become a major target of mainstream marketers and their advertising media buyers.
In the old days, the only "commercial" text normally found in toilet stalls and on urinal walls were those placed by anti-social cranks and hookers of various sexual orientations. Often using ballpoint pens as chisels, they scrawled phone numbers and crude taglines like "For a good time in Dallas, call..."
But in recent years, marketers like Sony Music, Unilever and Nintendo along with major liquor companies and TV networks have been systematically elbowing aside the hookers and cranks to get their own commercial messages in front of a demographic with its pants lowered and its zipper undone.
Deodorant brands, recording artists, video games and automakers are routinely buying space on the doors of toilet stalls or urinal walls. Meanwhile, other assorted "guerilla" media vendors offer condom packaging and urinal mats as relatively inexpensive messaging surfaces.
The venue offers an audience that is captive to its biological needs, said David Turner, president of the Indoor Billboard Advertising Association, founded in 1998. "In a restaurant, 75% of the patrons use the restrooms. In a bar or a nightclub, the average patron uses a restroom almost three times per stay."
The right demographics
When Sony Music launched country singer Gretchen Wilson this May, the company's media plan included restroom advertisements in clubs and sports venues including the Nashville Speedway and Gaylord Entertainment Center. "The arena holds 50,000 people, watching football, drinking Cokes and beers all day. They'll go to the bathroom possibly three times a day," said Margie Hunt, senior director of marketing for Sony Music Nashville. "We knew Gretchen's music would appeal to lots of people who go to the speedway. It is just a matter of getting the most impressions. We look for the right demographics."
Packaged-goods giant Unilever has advertised its Axe deodorant in bathrooms since the product launched in the U.S. in August 2002. It is currently running restroom ads in 10 major U.S. markets.
Aimed at 18- to 25-year-old men, Axe is a brand that "is about helping a guy attract women," said David Rubin, senior brand development manager. "It is a social brand in that respect, and there's no place like a bar for guys to meet women." Axe's creative features "Pit Man," a visual oddity created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York. The creature is composed of a hairy armpit and a foot.
"In a bar, he's much closer to our brand promise," Mr. Rubin said. "He's thinking about meeting someone, he's in the right mindset."
Though relatively small in size -- the Indoor Billboard Advertising Association estimates its North American revenues will reach $50 million this year, compared with the $5.5 billion spent on outdoor advertising -- advertising in restrooms in bars, restaurants, airports and shopping centers is on the rise, up 14% from 2003, which rose 12% over the year before. The group's members are 30 independent companies that sell space on "boards" in 200 markets in the U.S. and Canada. Marketers with the greatest increase year to date are women's apparel (48%). Marketers also like restrooms for cost and the ability to target consumers.
Most marketers include bathroom ads as just one component of a plan that includes more traditional media, such as TV, print and outdoor. But for certain audiences, advertising in bathrooms is the piece de resistance, so to speak, of a campaign.
Nintendo achieved one of its most successful game launches in 2001 when it introduced "Conker's Bad Fur Day." Aimed to appeal to college-aged guys, Conker is a squirrel who, among other things, drinks and urinates frequently. The media campaign included
Video Game character Conker is being promoted with branded splash mats for urinals. However, one industry authority points out that selling such campaigns is more difficult because of marketers' concerns about 'people peeing on their ad creative.'
"Like Conker, our target's focus in on his social life. Being in bars is absolutely being in their element, and because urinating is part of game play, it made total sense," said Gina Broderick, associate media director at Starcom Worldwide, part of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group. Starcom handles Nintendo's media buying and planning.
In the first two weeks of the game's launch, Ms. Broderick said, the Conker Web site had 300,000 unique visitors. In its first month on the market, "Conker's Bad Fur Day" was the top-selling mature-rated video game for all systems, according to TRSTS, a tracking system conducted by NPD Group.
'Peeing on their ad creative'
To be sure, urinal mats aren't for every advertiser; in fact, GoGorillaMedia, a New York vendor of guerilla media that produces message-laden tchotchkes such as swizzle sticks, condoms and matchbooks for clients, said that although many marketers inquire about urinal mats, few pony up the money for a buy. "It is very difficult to get a client past the fact that there'll be people peeing on their ad creative," said Joe Bonadio, senior account manager. "It is a challenge."
But certain clients will venture into unusual media, such as electrically charged vinyl posters in bathrooms. (The electric charge causes the material to stick firmly to a glass surface.) Earlier this year, cable networks TBS's media buying agency, RET Media in Atlanta, used GoGorilla to post 1,350 charged 5-by-7-inch posters on bathroom mirrors around Los Angeles and New York City. Designed to lure viewers to reruns of Sex and the City, the message read: "Samantha. Richard Wright. Men's bathroom. Episode 87."
The packaging of condoms distributed in men's bathrooms has also become a hot advertising medium. Herc, a maker of a powder used in energy drinks, hired GoGorilla to produce a condom-package-based buzz marketing campaign. It featured creative taglines like "Play Harder" and "Keep it up." GoGorilla's senior account manager, Suzanne Hansen, said the message was "very specific to the medium." Echoed Axe's Mr. Rubin: "If you have the right creative, there's a lot of talk value" in bathroom advertising.
But even marketers who buy space in restrooms put a limit on the venue. "I wouldn't do graffiti advertising in a strip club," said Ms. Hunt of Sony Music Nashville. "I don't see [a bathroom] as a negative. We are careful about where we select to put these ads. Ours are right next to [the toilet stall posters of] eyecare physicians, finer lady's shops and health-care providers."
Even Ms. Broderick of Starcom Worldwide, responsible for the Conker urinal mats, agreed that "bathroom advertising comes with baggage: It is a bathroom. You really have to work with the humor of the fact that you are in the bathroom. The link between the message, the media and the target has to be at play."
While decrying the loss of the "good old days," when going to the bathroom allowed for privacy and a media-free zone, Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, looked on the bright side: "Maybe the benefit is that as bathrooms increasingly become a major place for advertising, we will all see cleaner public restrooms because advertisers will have a vested interest in keeping them that way."