Friday, September 14, 2007

I Want My GSTV

So you got your History Channel. You got your Lifetime Television. You got your Oxygen Network. You got your BTV (Black Entertainment Television), your MTV (Music Television), your ETV (Entertainment Television) and your virtually every other letter of the alphabet TV. But until now you've never had your GSTV. Welcome... to Gas Station Television.

No, it's not on channel 78953. It's not a broadcast showing the latest practices in the automotive service industry. Nor is it a celebration of the best mechanics or fastest pumps found in the land. Rather, it's one more attempt by advertisers to make sure that there's not a waking moment when you can't be bombarded with some kind of sales pitch for a product.

And those moments are dwindling fast. Of course, we take for granted the ads that appear on broadcast television that support the networks and enable them to run our favorite shows. We've also grown accustomed to the commercials that now seem to be mixed in before every movie with the trailers, which are themselves a form of advertising anyways. Then there are the monitors that are appearing in cabs, on buses, in supermarket checkout lines, in airplane seat backs... in short, anywhere where you're forced to linger for a minute, might be bored, and might be disposed to look for something to pass the time.

But in our on-the-go, never stop, multi-tasking world, those moments are in short supply. Distractions are everywhere, threatening to diminish the impact of any message. Take the internet. What could be a better venue for an advertiser than when a person chooses to sit down in front of a screen and punches in whatever is on their mind at that particular moment. Type a thought into Google, and a host of ads shows up on the screen keyed to your specific search. That's targeted marketing at its finest. But how often do you actually look at those ads, or more to the point, read them and absorb them? That's why while web advertising may be way up, there's a good deal of consternation as to how effective it really is.

No, the holy grail of advertising consists of several elements. An audience that is delivered directly to your exhibition space. An audience that has virtually no choice, save closing their eyes and ears, but to watch your message. A venue where you can pump out that message free of other distractions. A message uniquely adapted to the attention span of the audience. And the ability to update and customize that message to the viewer and their location. Put those elements together, and you get Gas Station TV.

Think about it. The gas station is one of those places that, like it or not, if you have a car you have to visit. The demographic that goes to gas stations all but defines the concept of "broadcasting:" according to GSTV's data, 85% are between the ages of 18 and 54 years old, and there's a 50/50 breakdown between male and female. They make the visit approximately six times per month or 1.7 times per week. And most importantly, once they put that nozzle into their gas tank and are stuck holding the handle, they have to stand in one spot for four minutes with virtually nothing else to do. If that doesn't describe the term "captive audience," I don't know what does.

All of which makes the idea of GSTV a "why didn't I think of that" kind of idea. What the company does is to install 20" TV monitors on top of existing gas pumps, along with a full audio system. Into that they feed a loop of "news now" programming as well as sports scores and headlines, interspersed with short commercials. The system is updated several times a day via a data feed, and features content from such well known sources as ABC Television and ESPN, interspersed with ads from such companies as Chevrolet, Progressive Insurance, Dodge and Jeep. So far it's in about 4,000 locations in metro New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta, with plans to add San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit for more than 7,500 screens by year's end.

GSTV seems to have stumbled onto that rare combination of a good idea that's potentially profitable yet unexplored. And for all others concerned, it's would seem to be a good bargain as well. It costs the gas stations nothing, and in fact they get revenue paid to them by GSTV for using their space. Advertisers get a new way to reach out and touch someone. And bored consumers get something to watch while they're standing there filling their tanks. About the only ones unhappy are those that lament the encroachment of advertising into yet another moment of our day. What's next: bathroom stall TV? Hmm...

What GSTV does is to play to modern human nature: if there's a screen, there's a viewer. Still, as David Polinchock of the Brand Experience Lab notes, there's a difference between a "captive" audience and a "captivated" one. And you can say that you're tired of these types of intrusions, and just won't watch. But when you're standing there smelling the fumes from your unleaded, you're watching the numbers on the pump count upwards like the readout on some crazy Las Vegas slot machine and the only thing to look at is the traffic, I would challenge you not to look at the screen as your fill up your tank.


Marc Wollin of Bedford learned more about "Dancing With The Stars" than he ever wanted to know on GSTV. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Keys ARE The Kingdom

When it was time to pick up the new car, I thought I had all the details covered. The check from the bank was in my hand. The insurance card had been faxed to the dealer the day before. I had cleaned out the garage. I had a set of jumper cables, a litter bag and had even bought myself a new traveling coffee mug.

But I hadn't factored in the keys.

You know, keys. Those things that you stick in the door and turn to open the lock. Small pieces of metal carried by maintenance guys on huge rings. Generally silver or gold colored, usually flat, but occasionally round or stubby if they're meant for a bike or a padlock. And available from any hardware store for a buck or so, a little more if you select the ones with the color coded tops.

Ah, but not so fast. Cars today... excuse me, vehicles today... have gone upscale with their keys the same way as everything else. Just as radios have morphed into entertainment centers and seats into driver support systems, so too has the lowly key. No longer simple slot and tumbler affairs, they are "secure vehicular access systems," loaded with the same kind of hi-tech accessories as a cell phone.

In fact, it's hard to find a car today that doesn't have a complete entry package. At the low end, this might mean a remote that locks and unlocks the car, as well a panic button to set off the alarm if you feel threatened. Move up the ladder, and the remote might also be capable of opening the windows or even adjusting the driver's seat and mirrors to your preferred driving position. At the top of the scale, you get all this and you don't even have to take it out of your pocket or purse to use it: the car senses the remote's approach and springs into action. All you need to do is slide into the seat, press a button on the dash, and roar off like James Bond.

Aside from convenience, these systems also offer another added benefit: security. Many now contain a microchip in the key that has to mate with a receiver in the dash. Without that electronic handshake, the car won't start, even if the key fits. While it's hardly the only factor, it's one that has appears to have had a positive effect: based on preliminary FBI data, auto thefts were trending downward nationally for the third year in a row.

Of course, advancements like this don't come cheap. While the cost of the original factory installation is one aspect, it doesn't stop there. Whereas in the past you could get a spare copy of a vehicle key made at hundreds of outlets, it now has to be specially ordered from the dealer, and then programmed for your car. Honda charges $69 for a replacement, Mercedes $140. And if you lose your Toyota Prius key, you'll not only be greening the environment but your dealer's pockets as well: a replacement there goes for $210.

On top of that, these things have morphed from petite slivers of metal to Swiss army knife-esque proportions. And I'm not talking about the little one with a toothpick, a tweezers and a blade good for opening an envelope. Rather, they have grown to resemble those contraptions that include a corkscrew, a serrated blade for cutting down trees and a scuba mask. In fact, Volkswagen has done away with the key entirely. They have a version where once you open the car you stuff the entire remote into a slot on the dash to start it. And like one of those Russian dolls, the fob actually contains a plastic key that won't turn over the engine but gives you access, so you can lock the fob inside and "go surfing."

All of which brings me back to my problem. The key for the new car included one with a remote built in. All well and good. But I also had a similar device for my wife's car. Add to that the keys to our other vehicles, the house key, and a few others, and my key ring had increased to roughly the size of a baseball. Putting it in my pocket risked torn pants, not to mention emasculation in the most literal sense. Thank God I already had kids.

Sure, I could pare down my collection, but then I wouldn't have what I needed when I needed it. And forget the idea of carrying an extra. Even if I was willing to fork over the $100 or so it would likely cost, my wallet would swell like it had a goiter problem. To paraphrase Mae West, is that a spare key in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

I tried several arrangements, different key rings, different pockets. Nothing worked. And so after much soul searching, I decided to skinny things down and carry just the key for the car I was driving, with the others left on a hook in my backpack. Additionally, there's no spare in my wallet to back me up. It may be a normal approach for others, but I feel like I'm on a trapeze without a net.

Now every time I get out of the car or leave a restaurant or move from any one place to another, I pat myself down like I'm being frisked. I live in fear that I'll leave the key somewhere and be stranded. I'm thinking of clipping them to my belt like I did in college, much to the chagrin of my wife. These new fangled gadgets are supposed to make life easier. Instead, it has me only thinking about one thing: where my key is, lock, stock and barrel.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes his new Wrangler, in spite of his entry and exit issues. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.