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Advertising adds up to big money for WSF

A Seeds of Change advertisement onboard a Bainbridge ferry.  -
A Seeds of Change advertisement onboard a Bainbridge ferry.
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Since they were first rolled out last December, glossy onboard advertisements have quietly inundated vessels throughout the Washington State Ferries system, and become an increasingly significant revenue stream for the cash-strapped agency.

The program began with just one advertiser, JanSport, which shelled out $39,000 for wall, door and car-deck murals on the Wenatchee and Tacoma.

Over the last 10 months roughly 20 more advertisers have purchased advertisements on ferries, which have now been featured on every route in the system except for the Port Townsend to Keystone run. The program has grossed roughly $497,000 and netted WSF $188,057, according to spokesperson Joy Goldenberg.

Trans4media company of Seattle markets ad campaigns on the ferries and works with Ranier Industries to create the vinyl decal displays. Trans4media Chief Executive Officer Skip Vose said advertisers pay anywhere from $1,200 to $180,000 for the marketing campaigns, which typically last four weeks. Trans4media plans to expand both the number and style of ads it will offer onboard the iconic vessels.

“What we’re trying to do is bring as much revenue to WSF as we can, and do it in a way that is pleasing to the riders,” Vose said.

Pleasing riders, Vose said, means making sure ads are tasteful and don’t “clutter” the boats. Displays have been limited to surface-hugging decals spread on walls, stairwells, doors and floors. Ads usually feature large images, subdued colors and simple text.

Vose said his company encourages advertisers to bring value for riders. Jansport, for example, held onboard drawings for free backpacks. More recently, organic foods company Seeds of Change supplemented an elaborate series of ferry murals with free samples of its products.

Riders can expect a wider array of ad styles in the future.

Vose said his company has been experimenting with three–dimensional displays. It has mocked up a life-sized cutout of a car that could be placed on the car deck to promote an automotive dealership. Trans4media is also considering offering new onboard services that would be paid for by a corporate sponsor. An onboard concierge, for example, could help riders make dinner reservations and book hotel rooms, Vose said.

Ads have been purchased by companies with national and international markets, including JanSport and Lufthansa airlines, as well as Northwest-based companies and government agencies, including the Department of Ecology.

Puget Sound Energy is running an ad campaign on five boats this month, to raise awareness for its Green Power Program, which allows customers to contribute money for the energy company to add alternative energy to its system.

Rebekah Anderson of PSE said the ferries seemed a logical way to reach customers.

“We felt that commuters who use public transportation would be interested in conservation and renewable energy, and it gives us great range,” she said.

Bainbridge writer Susan Wiggs has been thrilled by ferry ads her publishing company purchased to promote her novel, “Just Breathe.” Wiggs held a book signing onboard a the a Bainbridge ferry as well.

She said she has received many positive comments about the poster-sized ads, but fielded one call from a ferry rider who was irate that she was “plastering” ads for her book across the boat. Wiggs has her own view of ferry advertising.

“I think anything WSF can do to make money without raising fares is great,” she said.

Advertising on working passenger vessels has presented challenges. Advertisers often purchase campaigns on a specific route, at a specific price to reach a specific audience. When WSF removes a vessel from service or switches vessels between routes, it can impact not only riders but also ad campaigns Goldenberg said.

Still, Vose said ferries have a lot to offer advertisers.

“They really, really like it,” he said. “It’s unique. There’s nothing like it in the country right now.”

Advertising is one of a limited number of tools WSF has used to raise money outside of the fare box and taxpayer support.

Even before the glossy JanSport ads were rolled out, Certified Folder Display service maintained brochure racks on the boats and concessions contracts have provided steady money.

WSF also charges an hourly rate each time a television show or advertiser films on a boat. It’s a popular service and the photogenic boats attract big names.

In the last four months, ferries have hosted dozens of film crews, including Rachel Ray Show, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and Shrek the Musical. Hourly rates begin at $300, and increase depending on crew size in ferry resources required, according to WSF Operations Administrative Manager Jim Fletcher. Media user fees accounted for just $25,000 in revenue in 2007.

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