Why Is My MetroCard Red?

Brands ride the rails to reach more than 8 million NYC straphangers

If you're a New Yorker and you bought a MetroCard sometime in the last week or so at a "high-traffic" station (Herald Square, Penn Station, Coney Island, Times Square, etc.), you may have noticed something was very different. Rather than the sunny yellow New York commuters have come to know, the card the machine spat out this time was crimson.

While it can be difficult to catch a consumer's eye with a particular ad, it's likely that if you received one of these cards touting Resorts World Casino in Queens, you took note because for New Yorkers—especially those too young to remember the era of tokens—a MetroCard is an iconic NYC accessory. (This is also true for tourists.)

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said advertising has been permitted on the backs of MetroCards since the stored-value card fare system was introduced in the 1990s, but the agency only recently began allowing ads to take up real estate on both the front and back. 

"This started a resurgence in advertising on the MetroCard, including recent ads from Gap, Audible.com and Simple Mobile," he said.

MetroCard ads can put a brand's phone or Web address right into consumers' wallets for easy accessibility, Donovan said, and they can serve as a coupon. Both the Gap and Audible.com used the card as a call to action offering customers a discount or a free product, he noted.

The MTA publishes its ad rates online. At the low end, for 50,000 issued cards with advertising only on the back of the card, the total cost is projected to be just over $20,000. Toward the high end, for 2.5 million cards printed both front and back, the estimated cost would be $625,000 (that's 18 cents per card). The MTA also offers to share the branding (with New York City Transit messages) at a 20 percent discount. Offered is not just the ability to potentially reach the system's 468 stations and 8.5 million riders, but also target stations demographically.

Donovan said the MTA hasn't to date looked into ROI for clients participating in MetroCard advertising, but the program has generated $684,000 in net revenue for the MTA since its relaunch last year.

The Resorts World Casino ads are soon to go systemwide.