- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Metro riders, already a captive audience for hundreds of commercial pitches sprinkled throughout the system, are being dangled as bait in a new plan that would give single advertisers the exclusive rights to specific stations.

Ralph Frisbee, Metro's manager of advertising and promotions, said the proposal would give advertisers an opportunity to make a statement by buying up at a premium every available advertising slot at a station.

Metro intends to add new ad spaces on station walls and floors. Those new spaces could net the transit agency an extra $495,000 a year at the three heavily traveled stations where the concept will be tested Metro Center, Gallery Place-Chinatown and National Airport.

As many as 600,000 riders a day use Metro.

Transportation Displays, the company Metro has contracted to look at which stations would be the most amenable to the single-station concept, also flagged Union Station and Farragut North as possible contenders.

If the plan is approved, the exclusivity deals will be available to any advertiser from retailers to advocacy groups and political candidates willing to pay to reach Metro riders.

"There is no prohibition at all on political advertising none," Mr. Frisbee said. "We have to remain pretty content-neutral … in that we can't pick and choose what advertisements go up."

Any advertising political or commercial that is vulgar or obscene would be rejected. In January, Metro accepted an ad from Change the Climate, a group that supports legalized marijuana, after the ad had been rejected by other transit agencies across the country.

"I think any time you open advertising, you run some risk that that could happen," Mr. Frisbee said of the potential for objectionable ads.

Metro's board will vote on whether to allow the single-station advertising at its May board meeting. If approved, advertisements will go up by late summer or early fall, Mr. Frisbee said.

Last week, the board's operations committee was given a sneak peek at how the single-station ad plan would work, using the tony vacation company Club Med as an example.

Mr. Frisbee said his goal is to attract business from blue-chip companies that can afford to make long-term investments in advertising.

A recent example of ad saturation came during the NBA All-Star weekend, when Adidas paid for numerous ads featuring Kobe Bryant at stations near MCI Center, where the game was played.

The single-station plan is part of Metro's expanded strategy to earn an additional $1.8 million a year in ad revenue from buses, rail cars and stations.

Jef I. Richards, chairman of the advertising department at the University of Texas, said Metro finds itself in the dubious position of needing more revenue, wanting to avoid offending anyone and ensuring First Amendment rights.

"Free speech certainly comes into play," Mr. Richards said. "There is certainly a danger that once you throw open the gates, it's open to everyone."

Some commuters may oppose more commercialization of what are supposed to be public places, Mr. Richards said.

"The biggest problems you are going to have is that people think it's ugly, and people don't like the invasiveness of advertising," Mr. Richards said.

Mr. Richards said Metro would be the latest government agency looking to advertising as a revenue source.

Public schools around the country, for example, have turned to corporate sponsorships to secure books, athletic uniforms and band instruments.

The Interior Department has even raised the idea of corporate sponsors for national parks.

In Boston, transit funding is so tight that officials there continue to offer permanent subway-station "naming rights" to the highest bidders though public backlash seems to have turned away corporate suitors.

Metro officials say the proposed exclusivity deals would not involve station names and would be in effect for a limited time.

The high cost of putting up dozens of ads in the stations may not pay off for advertisers looking to influence Maryland or Virginia congressional races, said Carl Forti, a spokesman with the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"It seems like an awful lot of money to spend to reach somewhat of a small audience," Mr. Forti said.

Special-interest groups seemed skeptical about the possibilities as well.

Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said her group probably would stick with television and radio to get out its message. But she noted the inevitability of plans like the single-station Metro ads.

"Everywhere you go now, there is an ad," Ms. Lyons said.

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