In a stall, on the wall. In a hole, on the pole. In a store, on the floor. There’s more, more, more … “ambient advertising.”

There’s more, more, more … “ambient advertising.” By its very definition, there’s virtually no escaping it. In fact, it can make a country long for the good old days of 30-second TV commercials.

Ambient advertising refers to innovative marketing techniques that catch consumers unaware. The advertisements are considered “ambient” because they encompass one’s atmosphere. They’re not restricted to traditional media outlets like radio, television and newspapers.

They’re on the backs of bathroom stall doors, at the bottom of golf course holes, on the floors of supermarket aisles. They’re tattooed on people, painted on cars, printed on egg shells.

They’re everywhere, and that’s the point. If you can think of a place untouched by advertising, then you have information ad firms want. Either that, or the firms have already tried it and been rebuffed by law or ordinance, like that which forbids advertising along the Natchez Trace parkway from Nashville, Tenn., to Natchez, Miss.

Advertisers thrive on cleverness. They stuck ads in gas pump handles and billed them as “FillBoards.” Beach n’ Billboard Inc. carved ads into sand at public beaches.

Advertising is about attention. The ad must stand out, stand alone, stand up. Ambient advertisements, many believe, do this.

If ambient advertisements cross a line, it’s one that is blurry. Some cite the tattooed ads and decry using bodies for advertising. Yet, they are blind to the Nike swoosh or Tommy Hilfiger name that has colonized our clothing.

Advertising has, at some point, likely made our lives better, either because we must advertise our own businesses, or because ads help pay for goods and services that otherwise would have passed costs along to us.

Ambient advertising, like any other kind, lets consumers know about products. Much of the time, it’s also highly creative and entertaining, which stems from its emphasis on—literally—thinking outside the box and trying to work with smaller budgets.

Ambient advertising, though, views almost nothing as sacred—not that gas pump handles and egg shells qualify. But perhaps it’s time they should.
If we have to advertise on our food, we might have a problem. In truth, however, the egg-shell ad is not the real problem. The real problem lies in ad-saturated lives that solicit this approach.

American adults are exposed to roughly 3,000 advertising messages per day. No wonder the bottom of the 18th hole seems attractive. It stands out and is a reasonably targeted market to boot.

But it also helps pedal the cycle of consumerism, which is already going downhill on a steep grade.

Ambient advertising is likely here to stay, and “ignoring” it won’t help combat commercialism.

First, the subconscious is probably more powerful than we’d care to admit. Just because we’re not consciously aware of ads doesn’t mean we miss them altogether.

Second, ignorance may be bliss, but our bliss often comes at others’ expense (e.g. it would be blissful to think everyone in the world has enough food). Ignorance of advertising, even if it were possible, would not engage the problem. Awareness does. It also aids in discernment, since advertising is by no means inherently evil.

So start noticing ambient ads. Wonder why they are where they are. Speculate about their target markets. Ask yourself if they’re working and, most importantly, why they might be effective.

It’s easier to blame faceless corporations than to examine one’s own habits and, when necessary, change them.

Change starts with us, and it’s what stands between ambient advertising and claustrophobic commercialism.

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.

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