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There's curb appeal, then there's a curbside appeal

September 16, 2007|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

Bus benches just don't get much respect. Some are slept on; some are defaced by graffiti. Coffee and soda are spilled on them. Names are engraved. And yet . . .

In today's Web-surfing, GPS-navigating, digital camera-snapping, blog-dominated universe, the lowly bus bench is for some real estate agents a beacon of marketing optimism, a way to stand out amid the clutter of high-tech ads.

Sure, they're pedestrian, but that's exactly the point, according to the advertising agency that brought us the iconic "Got Milk?" campaign and made wearing a chalky mustache en vogue.

"You can get 100,000 cars passing by a bench on Sepulveda or Wilshire [boulevards] every day," said Joshua Spanier, director of communications strategy for San Francisco-based Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. "That's a lot of opportunity . . . for people to see your message."

What is that message, exactly? "I'm here! Remember me when you buy in this neighborhood!" It's about name recognition on a micro level.

"You have about 2.3 seconds" to get motorists' attention, estimates George Kubota, a sales representative for Irvine-based Atomic Outdoor Media, which buys bench space for clients. He added that although the first drive-by may not register, the agent's name will after it's viewed three or more times in quick succession over several weeks.

"Repetitive bench ads are like those radio mattress ads," he said. "They get stuck in your head."

They're also "about perception," said Whit Prouty, a Studio City Keller Williams Realty agent and bench-ads enthusiast. He said the ads imply, " 'I'm spending money on marketing, so I must be successful.' Benches do a number of things for me."

Not all of those things relate to realty. Or maybe they do. Prouty recalled the year his family's holiday greeting cards featured a photo of his wife, three kids and their dog seated next to his mug shot on one of his bus benches. "Our friends got a kick out of it," Prouty said. It probably didn't hurt business, either.

The standout factor

And, unique to this particular advertising niche, bus benches aren't surrounded by the clutter of credit card and pharmaceutical ads that typically bombard online users. Yes, there is the occasional neighboring bench with a high-volume lawyer seeking to add to his DUI client roster, but for the most part, bus bench ads are the Mr. Cleans of advertising.

But the biggest reason bus bench ads work, according to Carol Scott, a UCLA professor of marketing, is that as we drive by in a state of traffic catatonia, our minds are ready to record. "We're in a greater state of receptivity when we're not in front of our computers. People stopped at a light, with nothing to do, see a name and it registers."

Seeking a way to stand out in his neck of the realty kingdom, Northridge Re/Max Olson & Associates agent David Rothblum decided to buy bench ads after trying marketing at mall kiosks, car washes, on the Web, in newspapers and through mailed brochures -- strategies he still uses. So four months ago he pasted his face on four benches in Universal City, Sherman Oaks and North Hollywood. And voilĂ : "I got a ton of calls."

"It's funny. People say, 'I've seen your bench,' and they chuckle," Rothblum said. "It's a different way of advertising. But for me, the bottom line is that they saw it."

"Seeing it" apparently promotes a feeling of familiarity too. Agents say that strangers often approach them, insisting that they're long-lost friends or high school chums from 30 years ago.

"We were in Mammoth once, and some people approached us and said, 'I'm sure I know you!' " said Eileen Moreno, a Re/Max Los Feliz-Silver Lake agent. Her husband, George Moreno, is her business partner. "They didn't believe us when we said they didn't. We assumed it was because of our benches."

Mike Culver, president of Gardena-based Coastline Street Advertising, who estimates that 90% of his bench ads go to real estate agents, tells the story of a Pico Rivera client who purchased bench ads from him for 15 years. About five years ago, city officials removed the ads, Culver said. The client told Culver that despite the half-decade advertising absence, strangers still stop him on the street, claiming they just saw him on benches.

"How else can you get famous for a low price in one target area?" Culver asked.

Coastline charges $200 a bench per month in most areas; the lowest-priced benches are $125 (plus production costs). Bigger companies also charge $200 a bench per month but typically require a five-bench, four-month minimum.

Just like real estate, bus bench ads are all about location: East L.A., Whittier, Carson and South L.A. benches cost less than those in the Valley and on the Westside.

Popular L.A. locations, vendors say, are Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, and the streets of Marina del Rey and West L.A.

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