Transit advertising needs to replenish its creative juices

The advertising industry has its ideas about transit media products, and they are none too rosy according to a new study from the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), Practical measures to increase transit advertising revenues.

The belief by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) that motivated this study is public transit agencies could be—and needs to be—benefiting more from their advertising assets.

Denneen  & Company conducted TCRP Report 133 as a comprehensive review of literature and information on the best practices within transit and other media-trade organizations related to boosting shares of national ad spending. The information gathered included a 10-year trend line of transit advertising revenues, comparing it to all media.

Published in the interest of transit marketers, transit advertising sales organizations and media planners and buyers, as well as potential clients, Report 133 offers recommendations to improve the negative perceptions, and suggest strategies to invite and increase transit advertising sales.

The TCRP puts the sale of advertising in public transit facilities and vehicles at nearly $1 billion a year, generating approximately $500 million annually to transit agencies, but representing only 0.4 percent of total U.S. advertising expenditures six years ago. Transit media sales have been fairly stagnant since they dropped over 30 percent from their height in 2003.  The other 99.6 percent went to television, radio, billboards, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and other media.

New advertising trends have weakened the traditional outlets. Television has long dominated national advertising sales, but is becoming fragmented from cable and satellite. TCRP purports this should generate interest for transit advertising, one of the last vestiges of truly affordable mass media, saying it cannot be turned off, deleted, fast forwarded or easily ignored.

Using new media and technologies that offer additional opportunities for advertisers, transit advertising media from the bus to the bus shelter can target advertising messages to specific geographic and demographic segments in metropolitan populations.

TCRP felt further research would help transit professionals understand the viewpoints of advertising decision makers, and find ways to encourage their purchase of more transit advertising.

With the shift in advertising modes, transit advertising is still not living up to its potential. The study points to a tarnished image of transit advertising, even though it is well positioned to grow considering emerging trends advertising.

As a category, out-of-home media remains one of the fastest growing sectors of advertising spending. However, the reports warns that competing with billboards, newspapers, place-based advertising and the Internet, transit advertising faces an uphill battle. The study concluded that presently the overall perception transit advertising is neither highly motivating nor differentiated from billboards; and that the level of product innovation is insufficient to generate interest and enthusiasm among media planners and advertisers.

Sadly, says Report 133, while transit has the makings of a sought-after medium, in its current shape as a supplemental, second tier medium it lacks credibility, relevance and distinctiveness in today’s advertising market, and the negative perceptions take it downhill. Ouch.

But looking on the bright side, the research shows the greatest perceived strength of transit advertising is its capability to reach a captive audience; and given the size of the transit industry, the study suggests substantial growth of transit advertising is feasible.

Transit advertising is a small but important contributor to the operating budgets of public transit agencies across the United States, typically representing less than five percent of the operating funds.

A transit professional might wonder what the agency can do to stimulate higher transit advertising sales, but Practical measures to increase transit advertising revenues sees the more essential question as what that transit agency can do to generate a quantum leap in demand for transit advertising.

This study in its entirety is available at