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.

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