Are you for real?

The history of urinal advertising

These days, advertising in public washrooms is omnipresent. You basically cannot relieve yourself without staring down some pitch for Altoids. In a Tivo age — where more people are zipping past ads than ever before — the washroom delivers something utterly precious to panicked, rapacious advertisers: An audience that is utterly captive for about 30 seconds.

But as it turns out, advertisers weren’t always so eager to invade the toilet. I’ve been reading a memoir by Bernie Krause, a famous soundtrack artist, and he talks about an advertising company he founded in the 60s:

We thought up a venue that had been overlooked. For several weeks, we stood in lavatories, ostensibly washing our hands, but actually running a time clock on the average length of time men spent in stalls. It’s a wonder we weren’t arrested for loitering. After accumulating enough data, we calculated that each person spent at least a full minute in a stall. It didn’t take much to see that an advertiser would receive 100 percent readership for a guaranteed period of time whenever their message was plastered on the inside of bathroom stall doors. Our next goal was to sell the concept, which we called LavaCard.

Ready to make our mark on the advertising world, we contacted Donnelly Outdoor sign company and forwarded a written proposal to the vice president of marketing. The proposal included all of our data and our plan for test-marketing the idea in gas stations along Route 66. When we called to arrange a meeting, the vice president picked up the phone and said, “This is the most scatological and deranged idea I’ve ever received, and I never want to hear your names again. Ever!”

Oh, those quaint capitalists of the past, with all their ethics and stuff.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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