MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to the gas station as entertainment venue. The automobile manufacturer Fiat recently unveiled a new ad for a fuel-efficient mini car. It features some edgy cartoon animals.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIAT ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No offense to hogs, but you’re a bit of a gas hog. There, I said it.
BLOCK: That commercial made its debut not on a television channel, not on a website, but on the screens above gas pumps at hundreds of stations across the country. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik brings us the story of Gas Station TV, the company that owns those screens and is trying to divert us one fill-up at a time.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I met David Leider at the gas station on the corner of First Avenue and 96th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As he scans the area, he does so with the clear-eyed confidence of a baseball scout sizing up a prospect.
DAVID LEIDER: We have a pretty typical gas station. There’s six fueling dispensers so multiple cars can fill up – a very, very busy corner – a lot of people coming in and out of the station. There’s a convenience store that sells different products and services. And we have our televisions on top of those pumps.
FOLKENFLIK: Each person at the pump gets his or her own screen, an element some advertisers find appealing.
LEIDER: We like to say that our consumer is tied to that screen with an eight-foot rubber hose for about five minutes fueling. So we’ve got this very, very captive audience – and they’re bored – there’s really no super magic. When people pump gas they have nothing to do.
FOLKENFLIK: A similar venture for major oil companies 30 years ago didn’t have sufficient technology nor programming. Leider is a former Yahoo executive who helped to found the company eight years ago and is now CEO. He started with five stations in Texas. Now Gas Station TV reaches more than 50 million people each month at 2,600 stations, according to the data reported to Nielsen Research. Some of the commercials that run on Gas Station TV are national and some are local, even for the snack shop at the station steps away. Since each station gets its own IP address from the company, the ads are customized for each neighborhood. Dan Collazzo (ph) loves watching at the pump. He’s a sergeant in the U.S. Army and says he fills up every day.
DAN COLLAZZO: I’m done and I’m still watching TV.
FOLKENFLIK: So that’s kind of cool, right?
COLLAZZO: It’s actually really good. I’d say it’s a good addition. Most people are multi-task – especially if you live here in New York City and it keeps you at idle.
FOLKENFLIK: A couple of other patrons told me they didn’t pay much attention. Those that do primarily see a rotating five-minute entertainment cycle that incorporates content from Bloomberg News, ESPN and that of Turner Broadcasting, which includes HLN, CNN and the Cartoon Network.
Alison Hashimoto is vice president of programming and production for Turner Private Networks.
ALISON HASHIMOTO: Over the years we’ve talked to companies wanting to put content in bowling alleys and auto dealerships, on trains, in planes, bus waiting rooms. Really, any opportunity where people are waiting is an opportunity for us to reach them with our messages and our content.
FOLKENFLIK: Hashimoto says Gas Station TV is an obvious win, helping to draw new viewers who may not turn on her shows at home.
Zach Seward of the online magazine Quartz, who covers the evolution of video screens says the thinking behind Gas Station TV feels less like television than billboards. You stick them in people’s faces because they happen to be nearby.
ZACH SEWARD: I guess advertisers talk about, you know, wanting to reach engaged audiences. And it’s sort of a buzzword, but to a degree it’s meaningful. It’s because you know, you’ve tuned in to “Mad Men” because you know, you love the show and so whatever advertising they happen to show during it is like, going to resonate more with you.
FOLKENFLIK: At the gas tank, Seward says people may have the urge to look elsewhere, specifically at the smartphones they’re holding in their hands. That said, Seward says those 50 million people who stand in front of a Gas Station TV screen each month represent an impressive tally, nearly as much the viral site Upworthy and more than the total digital audience of The Washington Post.
Gas Station TV’s Leider notes that people who turn on their TVs at home do not always pay much attention either. And his viewers share one key characteristic – they all drive.
LEIDER: So what that means if, you know, we’re going out and marketing to an automotive company, I can guarantee them that every single person has a car who’s filling up at my stations, where on television, they cannot do that. Yes, some motorcycles do fill up as well, here, as we can hear.
FOLKENFLIK: A Detroit-based private equity firm bought a controlling stake in the company in June for an undisclosed amount. But Leider says he intends to keep it rolling along. He plans trips to turn on Gas Station TV’s first screens in Hawaii and Alaska sometime next year.