Savvy Subway Ads From Service Startups Are Captivating Millennials on the Move

The more irreverent, the better

For New Yorkers, the city's sprawling subway system is a necessary evil. Sure, it's overcrowded (annual ridership reached 1.763 billion last year—the highest since 1948), plagued by delays (which have quadrupled since 2012, according to the MTA) and generally kind of gross (a Travelmath study found that touching an NYC subway handrail is the equivalent of shaking hands with 10,000 people), but it's undeniably the most convenient way to get from point A to point B. And thanks to a growing number of startups investing in underground ads, the daily subway slog has also gotten a lot more visually entertaining.

Over the past few years, many of the typically uninspiring subway ads for personal injury lawyers, local schools and, of course, Dr. Zizmor have been replaced by colorful, cheeky ads for ecommerce and service startups like Casper, Seamless, Thinx, TaskRabbit, Shyp, Glossier, Gett, StreetEasy and Lyft (to name just a few) looking to reach a captive audience of young urbanites.

"Millennials are using public transportation in greater numbers than their baby boomer counterparts," explained Jodi Senese, evp and CMO of Outfront, the out-of-home advertising company that oversees ads in New York's subways. "Now, as the millennial migration moves further and further out of Manhattan and into the other boroughs, [the subway] is the best way to reach that population."

Running a subway ad campaign is admittedly pricier than buying up some online display ads—for a half "brand train," or ads along one interior side of 570 subway cars, companies can expect to pay around $240,000, while the cost of a full "station domination" ranges from $100,000 to $350,000 depending on the location—but for companies looking for a relatively clutter-free environment and captive audience, the investment can be worth it.

That "immersive experience" proved a major draw for Thinx, which spent upwards of $300,000 on a subway ad campaign late last year to introduce consumers to its "period-proof" underwear, covering subway platforms and car interiors with ads featuring photos of models alongside provocative images of grapefruit halves and cracked eggs. "It's like you're entering an art gallery that's a conversation starter and also totally show-stopping," said CEO Miki Agrawal.

The cost of a full "station domination" ranges from $100,000 to $350,000 depending on the location.

The ads also grabbed commuters' attention with bold taglines addressing period-related woes in the same tone a 20-something woman might use to text her friends. "We're able to talk about something that's taboo, something that's uncomfortable for a lot of people, but in a totally relatable way," added Agrawal. (It didn't hurt, either, that Thinx stirred up some online controversy and received plenty of support after revealing that Outfront initially voiced wariness about running the ads for being too "suggestive"—although ads for breast augmentation were apparently OK.)

Even for more established companies, subway advertising with notice-me copy can help keep consumers engaged. Take Seamless, the New York food delivery service acquired by GrubHub in 2013, which has seen a massive response from its "How New York Eats" campaign currently plastering subway walls. Created by BBH, the vintage-inspired ads use tongue-in-cheek declarations like "Cooking is so Jersey," "Complaining really works up an appetite" and "Cook when you're dead. Or living in Westchester" that help reinforce the brand's local cred in an increasingly competitive marketplace

"We were taking a risk with some of the lines, but they have generated a lot of chatter and people have responded very positively," said GrubHub CMO Barbara Martin Coppola, who noted that due to popular demand, Seamless even began selling posters of its ads online. (They have since sold out.)

These sorts of attention-grabbing, irreverent ads have the added bonus of being endlessly Instagrammable (or Snapchat-worthy or Twitter-friendly), giving them a second life on social media. "Shareability has been a huge reason for pushing subway advertising," noted Coppola.

Thanks to her ads' social appeal, Thinx CEO Agrawal has even found some unlikely fans. "We've seen some bro-y guys taking pictures of [our ads]," she said. "I love it!"

This story first appeared in the July 11, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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