Last week, ABC announced it was going to advertise its comedy "Norm" with posters of its star, Norm MacDonald, strategically placed above urinals in New York and Los Angeles. And right away you think, "Well, we've finally lost all justification for our civilization to continue to exist." When capitalism starts following us to the toilet, maybe it's time to think about going the way of the Romans or the Incas and getting off the stage.
For this particular advance in human progress, we can thank Zoom Media, a Montreal firm that is the apparent worldwide leader in what people-in-the-know call "washroom advertising."
According to Claude Breault, head of corporate communications, washroom advertising got its start nine years ago when one of its co-founders, Carl Grenier, then a student, served on a university committee trying to figure out how to reach kids about sexually transmitted diseases. Why not put information in the bathrooms on campus, Grenier thought. After all, sooner or later, everyone has to go in there.
And so, a BIG IDEA was hatched, and soon after, so was a new advertising company, Zoom Media.
In a short time, advertising was going up in bathrooms all over Canada, and soon thereafter, in the United States too, at least in 14 cities, including Washington. All kinds of products found their way onto bathroom walls and stalls, everything from condoms to beers to cars to Hollywood movies. Even food products have come aboard, which Breault admits once struck him as counter- intuitive.
"At first advertisers worried that consumers would associate their image with the place where the advertising was, like a washroom. But, it doesn't happen that way. People don't make that association. It's like you're stuck in traffic and you see an outdoor billboard. Are you associating that product with traffic? No. People don't think that way."
In fact, Breault says, consumers have been surprisingly nonchalant about being confronted with advertising while doing their business. Complaints generally concern the advertising itself rather than placement. Even talking ads have generated few objections, including the ad for the USA television series "The Invisible Man," where the figure on the poster reminded bathroom users to wash their hands when done.
You listen to Breault for a little while and the whole idea of "washroom advertising" seems logical. More than logical. Diabolical.
He explains that advertising in bathrooms offers clients at least three distinct advantages. Number one, it can be gender specific in a way most advertising cannot.
"I don't know any other medium where you're reaching only one gender," says Breault. "Any magazine for women, men have access to it. But in washroom advertising, the gender segmentation is perfect."
So, for instance, Zoom Media puts its cosmetics ads only in women's stalls. And ABC has ordered the "Norm" ads only for men's rooms -- 150 in New York and 100 in Los Angeles.
The gender breakdown leads to the other bonus from washroom advertising. Zoom Media specializes in reaching the highly desirable 18-34 age group. "That group is tough to reach through other traditional media," says Breault. "They don't read the newspaper. They don't watch that much TV. They're on the go. I'm not in that target group, but when I was, I was out all the time."
So Zoom Media finds the bathrooms that are used by footloose youth. Generally, that means bars, restaurants and gyms.
And once Zoom Media is in those bathrooms, Breault says, it reaps benefits from the third and perhaps most important advantage of washroom advertising: a captive audience.
You can use your imagination for that one.