In your living room, the broadcast age is over. Remote controls, VCRs, DVRs, on-demand cable, videogame consoles, Netflix, and the Internet killed it. But at the gas pump, broadcast lives on in its purest, most potent form, like an ostensibly slain slasher movie villain who’s come back from the dead, stronger than ever. It is an awesome thing to behold.
Gas Station TV, a digital network founded by former Yahoo! advertising executive David Leider in 2006, can now be seen at 1,000 stations across the country. When you being fueling, an all-weather, 20-inch LCD screen on top of the pump springs into action, playing a 4.5-minute loop of newzak, infotainment, and lots and lots of commercials. PumpTop TV and Outcast, two similar networks that have formed a partnership with each other to expand their ad reach, appear at hundreds of other stations in 15 major U.S. markets.
While gas station TVs may look like the domesticated, obedient beast in your living room, they are an entirely different breed. When the perky fitness instructor on PumpTop TV starts explaining how you can strengthen your legs with your car keys, you can’t turn her off. You can’t fast-forward, you can’t change the channel, you can’t even lower the volume. You are what these networks call, with a refreshing lack of euphemism, a “highly captive audience.” A consumer hostage. A retail POW who can be televisually water-boarded for a solid five minutes with car repair tips, lottery commercials, movie previews, smog test pitches, and breaking news about vegan Twinkies.
Gas Station TV and its competitors are part of a larger phenomenon variously described as location-based networks, digital signage, and digital out-of-home (DOOH). You’ve probably seen these networks in bars and restaurants, laundromats, convenience stores, health clubs, supermarkets, bookstores, taxicabs, building lobbies, and elevators. Even the floor is no longer sacred ground thanks to Flasma, a company that aims to turn the sidewalk into a targeted, slip-resistant medium for delivering sports scores and the local burger forecast. In April, Paul Lindstrom, senior vice president of the Nielsen Company, told the The New York Times that if you place an ad on the 10 top location-based networks for a month, you’ll reach a larger audience than if your ad runs on every primetime TV show in the top 20 for a given week.
Location-based networks target consumers in places where they’re more apt to pay attention, but they do so where they’re also likely to make purchases. For these reasons, a gas station is the ideal environment for a location-based network. At a time when consumers have unprecedented control over the information they consume, people aren’t particularly receptive to unilateral media intrusions, especially when advertising is involved. A laundromat is no place for distractions — it’s hard enough keeping track of your socks as it is. In an elevator, you might prefer the zen-like serenity that comes from staring at the back of the same stranger’s head, week after week, month after month. But at a gas station, what ambiance is there to destroy? You’re at a gas station. It’s noisy. It smells like things that give you cancer. If it’s nighttime, the light is unflattering. Even a frantic stream of high-energy home improvement tips and edgy Miracle Whip commercials can’t make the experience any worse — the worst it can do is make it bad in a different way. And if you see a commercial for something you like, you can take action. You’re mobile. That pizza place offering a free pitcher of beer with every extra-large pepperoni might be 100 miles away, but so what? In a minute you’re going to have a full tank of gas!
In exchange for access to pumps and customers, networks give gas station owners commercial time on the broadcasts. This may not seem like much of a payoff, but it is. That’s because putting a convenience store with big plate glass windows 20 feet from the pumps, then filling that store with soft drinks, microwave burritos, and neon signs advertising the availability of such fare isn’t always enough to communicate to gas station consumers that they really can just walk inside and have a feast. But when stations advertise their stores on the gas pump TVs, sales go up.
But are the station owners giving up such strategic real estate too cheaply? And is the rapid growth and apparent success of networks like Gas Station TV and PumpTop TV making their creators too complacent, too fast? Imagine if, in the early days of TV or the Internet, those mediums had been pioneered exclusively by people whose greatest aspiration was to create actionable dialogs with consumers just steps from points of purchase. These days, a communications network that can regularly reach millions of viewers in an environment where they’re practically forced to pay attention is a resource rarer than oil! And yet so far the gas pump networks are devoting this precious resource to traffic reports, weather, sports scores, factoids — commodity information, in short, that you probably already got from your elevator.
It’s not that we need to be educated or enlightened at the gas pump, but at least entertain us. We give the pump five uninterrupted minutes of attention two or three times a month — which is more than we give to just about any media outlet other than Facebook these days. So hire Lost’s J.J. Abrams to create the world’s most complicated three-minute serial. Create some new proprietary combat sport that’s even more violent than Mixed Martial Arts and air it exclusively at the pump. At the very least, license some hilarious kitten videos from Cute Overload. Make the content so compelling that people seek out stations based on the shows they broadcast rather than the prices they charge. Make the content so compelling that people start trading in their Priuses for Hummers. Only then will the medium have reached its full potential. • 22 June 2010