How can Tokyo buses and streetcars make more money without attracting more passengers? One answer: advertising.

Expectations are now running high among train operators and ad agencies that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will lift its ban on ads on train exteriors following a series of recent policy shifts.

Seen as a highly profitable advertising medium, train exteriors are the next target of ad agencies. A half-century-old metro ordinance on advertisements in public spaces, however, prohibits any kind of ad on the outside of trains that run in the capital.

The ordinance was established in 1949 to regulate ads on building exteriors to prevent signboards from polluting the cityscape and posing risks to pedestrians should they collapse. How it applies to trains, however, is a sticky issue.

The ban on train ads made headlines recently when it nearly ruined the start of a 400 million yen Yamanashi Prefecture tourism campaign.

The campaign organizer had an ad fixed on the body of a train at a facility in western Tokyo, there being no facility in Yamanashi capable of doing the job. The three-carriage train sent from Yamanashi was adorned with pictures of grapes, a well-known product of the prefecture.

As part of the campaign, the train was scheduled to run through the prefecture over a three-month period starting in September. But by Sept. 8, it was still stuck in the painting shed; Tokyo officials refused to let it go. If the printed train rode Tokyo’s tracks, they explained, it would constitute a violation of the advertising ordinance.

Yamanashi officials said they were told the ordinance bans trains with exterior ads even from being transferred to a repair station in the dead of night.

Finally, in what it described as an exception, the metro government’s green light for running in the capital was given — but only after the train operators removed it from the garage wrapped in white plastic to obscure the ad.

“We were a little bit upset then,” one Yamanashi official said. “We thought the train was OK because the ad is not for a private company.”

A metro city planning bureau official, however, said it does not matter if an ad is for a company or not. “The ordinance regulates any display in an open space,” he said.

Buses paving the way

Back in April, things were looking up for exterior train ads when the metropolitan government lifted the ban on ads on the bodies of buses and streetcars.

The decision to ease the ordinance was initiated by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who, referring to deficit-making metro bus operations, said, “Instead of for carrying air, we should use buses as moving advertisers.” The metro assembly agreed.

Today, more than 600 buses on the 1,800-strong metro fleet as well as 16 streetcars sport ads.

All of the ads are run on one-year contracts, priced at 600,000 yen for those on buses whose routes cover less-populated areas and up to 2 million yen for those that traverse the highly competitive Shibuya area.

The lifting of the ban has turned the debt-generating metropolitan bus fleet into instant money machines for financially embattled metro transportation authorities, who logged 25 billion yen in the red in fiscal 1999 with cumulative debts of 495 billion yen.

At the launch of bus ads in April, the officials estimated they would rake in about 500 million yen in additional revenue a year. In fiscal 1999, bus operators had only 600 million yen in ad revenues from posters inside of buses.

Since its start, the transportation bureau has been flooded with requests for advertisements, and it has been forced to put a temporary freeze on new contracts. Meanwhile, private bus operators have also started running ads.

Officials said Tokyoites are divided over the ads. Some voiced support for the local government’s effort to find new revenue sources, even demanding more such buses. While ads featuring pictures of celebrities have become very popular with young people, among whom there has emerged “bus spotters.”

But there have also been reports of elderly people having difficulty identifying metro buses, which used to be a uniform cream with green stripes, officials said.

One citizen even complained that he did not want to ride a bus with a dark ad because it looked like a rightwing loudspeaker van, they said.

Fuzzy logic

In general, railways and ad agencies hope the ban will be lifted for trains soon.

Their expectations rose when the new Oedo subway line, which is run by the metropolitan government, started running a train with exterior ads in mid-September.

The ad was contracted by a music producer for one year at a cost of 15 million yen. Metro officials say the ad does not violate the city ordinance, “because the line does not go above ground” and the ad was thus not “outside.”

Meanwhile, metro officials admit it is getting increasingly difficult to defend the ban on exterior train ads. Ad agencies, they say, want to know the difference between streetcars and trains, and public transportation that runs underground and aboveground.

Currently, Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures allow train ads, but the metro ordinance has effectively banned ads on trains in the greater metropolis because many lines traverse the capital.

“We naturally expect trains will come next,” said an official of East Japan Marketing & Communications Inc., the advertisement wing of JR East, which has been lobbying the metro government to ease the ban over the past three years.

“The train body is a very attractive medium for advertising. Trains are the last untapped medium, as platforms and train interiors have been pretty much used to the max,” the ad official said.

Yet, the trend has caused some concern among people who fear the flood of moving ads may create another kind of cityscape pollution. They are especially worried that competition-driven ads may lead to disturbing, or even outright offensive images.

“In order to ensure harmony with the cityscape and protect the safety of motorists from disturbing images that may divert their attention, we are calling for ad agencies to establish self-screening committees,” said Tokyo University of Agriculture professor Kanzo Hirano, who is a member of a metro ad panel.

Then there are people who totally oppose using public transportation as an ad medium.

Miyuki Tamura, leader of the Study Group for Color in Public Places, said it is not a matter of taste but whether public transportation should be allowed to carry ads in the first place.

If there are environmental rights, there should be scenic rights that protect people from images they don’t want to see, she said.

Tamura said the metro government should instead address the essential question of what kind of cityscape Tokyo should have before allowing such ads.

She is critical of what she calls Tokyo officials’ growing attitude, fueled by Ishihara, that money talks.

“First of all, Gov. Ishihara should consider why buses ‘carry air’ and should make efforts to attract passengers,” she said. “There must be lot of other ways to reduce deficits, and they should not resort easily to ads for more revenues.”

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