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In a World of Advertising Vehicles, These Billboards Pick Up Riders

The MTA spends $12 million a year to take pictures and messages off its buses.

The MTA collects $5 million a year to put pictures and messages on its buses.

Confused? Remember, this is, after all, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The transit agency, long engaged in a costly struggle to wipe out graffiti, has during the past year turned 10 of its buses into rolling bus-length murals.

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The buses’ exteriors have been covered almost entirely with advertising that wraps over even the side windows; passengers can see through the material.

One eye-catching ad--stretching from headlight to taillight--depicts a flying bus from “Speed,” a movie about a Santa Monica bus wired with dynamite by an extortionist so that it will explode if it slows to less than 50 m.p.h.

In another ad, a picture of a jumbo jet flying through the air extends along the entire side of the 40-foot bus.

And a Dodgers ad features Orel Hershiser delivering a pitch while Mike Piazza swings a bat.

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Some say the ads on wheels provide an artful break from a tedious urban landscape. Advertisers say they are the perfect vehicle, so to speak, to reach consumers.

In Orange County, where the Orange County Transit District has sold bus-wide advertising space for years, one bus is covered entirely on one side with a Big Mac and on the other side with an Egg McMuffin.

“It’s like getting into this giant Egg McMuffin,” said Brian LaBadie, whose firm, SuperGraphics, produces the computer-generated ads. “It’s very appetite-stimulating.”

Yet one man’s art is another’s graffiti.

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Critics say the murals are just more visual pollution in a city that already suffers from too much sign clutter.

Ted Wu, an activist with Los Angeles Beautiful Inc., issued a “blight alert,” objecting to the “legalized graffiti” and calling it “demeaning to the bus riders who are forced to ride in roving billboards.”

“Stop this experiment,” Richard Seeley of La Crescenta appealed to MTA. “Or the next step will undoubtedly be to drape our public buildings with signs and banners trumpeting the advantages of using Pampers or Preparation H.”

Adman LaBadie defended the ads, saying they “provide something unique in the day-to-day traffic.”

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Just what L.A. drivers need--another distraction. Isn’t it enough that motorists here jabber away on cellular phones, apply makeup or brush their teeth driving 50 m.p.h.?

The MTA makes $20,000 a year from the bus murals--$2,000 a year on 10 buses. The rest of the $5 million in bus advertising that the agency takes in annually comes from traditional messages slapped on the sides and backs of the MTA’s 1,900 buses.

There is no commercial advertising yet on the Blue Line trolley or Red Line subway because of the low ridership; MTA officials believe that the rail lines eventually will become popular advertising venues. In New York City, advertising agencies like the subways because riders--who never like being seen looking at each other--spend a lot of time looking at the ads.

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Some of the wittiest, and occasionally the most controversial, are found on the back of blue Santa Monica city buses, spouting pithy wisdom from Santa Monica Bank.

A recent entry: “Loans. No sniveling, groveling or bootlicking required.”

Others have included: “Experts on the Reproductive Habits of the North American Greenback,” “To Get to College Your Kids Need A’s, B’s and CD’s,” and “Old and Wrinkled Is Beautiful. Especially in Large Denominations.”

There was also one that angered some feminists: “Girls Just Wanna Have Funds.”

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“The slogans go a long way toward dispelling the notion that bankers are uptight . . . hopefully, they humanize banking somewhat,” said Pat Robertson, vice president/account supervisor of Team One Advertising, which produces the Santa Monica Bank ads.

The bank plans to issue a book on the bus cards, featuring a chapter on lines that were never used, such as: “Congratulations on Your Settlement, Ivana Trump. We Open at 10:00.”

So well-known are the ads that the producers of “Speed” included them in the movie.

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MTA officials shrug off criticism of the bus mural ads, saying they bring in money to the cash-strapped agency.

An MTA spokeswoman also contended with a straight face that the giant ads increase ridership.

“Everybody wants to get on what we call a moving environment,” insisted MTA staffer Andrea Greene. “They think it’s neat.”

These new ads are computer-generated, “photo-realistic” images, produced in long, thin strips with adhesive backing--like shelf paper.

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When a bus accident tears off a piece of the ad, the company just prints out another strip and sticks it on.

“If you’re a passenger, it’s like looking through a screen door,” said adman LaBadie. “If you’re a pedestrian, you can see the advertisement.”

For drivers and pedestrians, the full-bus ads have “bigger impact than a billboard,” said Frank Sandusky, vice president and regional manager of Transportation Displays Inc., which sells bus advertising. “You can put it wherever you want.”


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