Moving, Changing Ads: GPS and Buses

h/t student in Intro to GIS

Soon, Chicago’s buses will sport 50-inch digital display screens, enticing passerby with geo-specific advertisements that change from street to street. On September 22nd, the Chicago Transit Authority unveiled its 10-year plan in partnership with the advertising sales company Titan Outdoor to implement 1,500 of these “moving billboards” on 100 city buses and in all CTA rail stations. For now, a lone bus on the No. 124 Navy Pier route is testing the system for about another 1.5 weeks (the test began on October 18th, so it will total six weeks in duration). CTA is using this test to get a better idea of the display screens’ durability and power consumption.

The system uses cellular signals to transmit ads directly to the screens, while GPS technology allows advertisers to target their ads towards specific geographic points along a bus route, based on passerby demographics and store locations. For example, as a bus passes by a university, it might flash advertisements for laptops, cell phones, pizza, cheap beer, or whatever else we students are supposed to like. As the bus moves towards a shopping boulevard, ads for handbags and perfumes might prevail. To give you a sense of how detailed the ads could be:

For instance, an ad on the side of the bus for a shoe-store chain could say, “Three blocks ahead: Buy one pair of shoes, get the second pair half off.”

The CTA predicts the initiative will earn them about 100 million dollars in revenue over course of the ten year plan. This is good news for the public transit users of Chicago, because it means that a rise in fares is unnecessary and unlikely in the near future. For those on foot, the experience is a bit less pleasant: I don’t think anyone enjoys feeling categorized, targeted, tracked, and then distracted by carefully chosen advertisements that flash and change as they pass. Oh, the wonders of GPS!

It’s not all about marketing, though. The Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications would have access to the screens, and could use them to broadcast Amber alerts, street closings, and emergencies such as fires or floods. In addition to ads, the screens in the CTA rail stations would display when the next train will arrive. So, although the ads are obnoxious, if the test-run proves successful these screens will become an important and efficient source of revenue for the CTA. They will benefit the general public by providing an interface for broadcasting emergencies and practical information across the city.

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