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9 Unique Ambient Advertisements

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As I researched a recent article on innovative outdoor advertising, I came across quite a few examples of ads placed in unique settings. These communications, meant to surprise consumers by making their brands stand out, are referred to as "ambient" advertising by some, and "guerilla" advertising by others. Whatever the name, they brought a smile to my face, so I thought I would share them here.

1. Big Pilot Watches

I've always found the best way to tell if I like a watch is to try it on. So these Big Pilot watches printed on German bus straps might have been a very effective way to get me in a buying mood. Then again, maybe they would only remind me of how late I was.

2. Mr. Clean

MrClean

I've seen a few of these crosswalk ads, but this is my favorite. You know those stripes are always pretty filthy, so seeing one really bright line is sure to get your attention. At least that's what Proctor & Gamble was hoping when they polished one stripe on German crosswalks, and decorated them with a Mr. Clean logo. Now let's just hope no one was mesmerized enough to forget about the oncoming traffic.

3. School of Visual Arts

sva

You're a visual arts school, and you want potential students to get in touch with their inner Picasso. Why not remind them that great ideas can happen anywhere? New York's School of Visual Arts encouraged people to write down their thoughts by printing lined paper on everyday objects like restaurant napkins, sugar packets, and even toilet paper. Inspired concept plus clean design equals effective advertising.

4. Toronto Comedy Film Festival

pie-face
Who doesn't love watching someone get a pie in the face? Next to slipping on a banana peel, it's probably the most classic physical comedy move there is. So these revolving door decals promoting Toronto's comedy film festival were sure to get Canadians in a slapstick mood. Just imagine seeing your boss coming through that entrance.

5. Cancer Patients Aid Association

smoker-funeral

If you were smoking in a designated smoking area and you saw this ceiling poster, depicting a funeral going on above your grave, do you think you might put out the butt? These morbid reminders, created by the Everest Brand Solutions agency of Mumbai, were meant to do just that. Then again, if you're so desperate for a smoke that you can't wait until you get outside, you might need more than a clever poster.

6. Purell

mag-germs

This one hits pretty close to home. I'm a bit of a clean freak, and I probably hit the Purell bottle a dozen times a day. You may think that's excessive. Then again, you haven't seen the crowd I hang with. Anyway, if I were in my doctor's office leafing through magazines and I saw a sticker on the cover that read "Gently sneezed on since October 2002," I might just insist on an anti-bacterial shower right there.

7. Iams

dogs

Saatchi & Saatchi of Sydney gave out frisbees resembling barbell weights to promote how dogs can gain strength by eating Iams dog food. Can't you just imagine dozens of dogs in a park playing catch with barbell weights?

8. Human Trafficking Awareness Partnership

HumanTraffic

You're looking for a nice sirloin or rib eye, and you jump back as you see a naked woman staring at you. That's the reaction Luxembourg ad agency Mikado Publicis was looking for when they printed images of women inside food packaging and placed them in the meat sections of local super markets. The campaign was meant to drive awareness of human trafficking, with copy that reads, "If you pay a prostitute, you're financing human trading..." That would get a shopper's attention.

9. Spiderman III

spiderman-urinal

And this gets my personal first prize for funniest ambient effort. When I walk into a public restroom looking for a vacant urinal, my eyes usually don't drift ten feet up the wall. This Spiderman III ad is hysterical, and it might have made me want to see the flick in theaters instead of waiting until the DVD came out. And it also proves that no space is off limits in the world of guerilla advertising.

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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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