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Consumer Reports

Advertising in the loo reaches stationary audience | (KRT) A nun walks into a bar, goes to the women's restroom and comes out miffed.

Did you realize, she asks a waiter, that there's an advertisement for birth control in there?

No, of course not, the waiter responds. He tells the owner, who orders it removed immediately.

That's a true story, according to Vito LaFata of Vito's Trattoria in St. Louis. He recalled it when asked about a recent advertisement extolling the benefits of a medication for yeast infections, which was neatly framed inside a ladies' room stall.

The contraceptive ad might not have offended anyone in other bars or restaurants around town. But Vito's sits near the city's Catholic nerve center - St. Louis University is across the street, the Cathedral Basilica and the chancery of the archdiocese are only a few blocks west.

But ads relating to infections of private parts are universally unappetizing, and LaFata also had that advertisement removed upon learning of it.

Welcome to the new millennium, where Americans are beset by advertising every minute of every day, even while carrying out our most private bathroom business.

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Advertising in public restrooms has been around for several years now. But it's multiplied exponentially during the past year - and will continue to do so in the coming year - as more and more indoor billboard companies set their sights on this relatively untapped market.

Johnny Advertising of Grand Rapids, Mich., has bathroom billboards in several local restaurants including Ruby Tuesdays, Culpeppers, Frailey's, Tuckers and HotShots.

"Right now we have 100 clients in the (St. Louis) area," said David Turner, president of Johnny Advertising. "We hope to have 300 different venues in the coming year."

Procter and Gamble, Edge Shaving cream, Pepto-Bismol, Pert shampoo and beer and liquor retailers are indoor billboard company's biggest advertisers. So are lending companies, such as Ace Mortgage, that cater to clients with shabby credit histories.

InSite Advertising of New York provides the bathroom billboards at Vito's. On its Web site, InSite states that it "captures the elusive, 18-34 year old demographic, when there's nothing else to look at. All eyes are forward, focusing on the ad with undivided attention. They can't switch the channel, change the station, turn the page or leave the room. That's 1-3 minutes of uninterrupted advertising exposure - a virtual oasis in an environment of media overkill."

Indoor billboard companies are setting their sites on restrooms in local movie theaters, malls and concert venues, seemingly expanding their market outside the 18-34 demographic.

What these companies may not have accounted for are the bathroom habits of women. Rather than staring at the stall door, many are intent on not touching any part of the commode - a task that requires concentration and balance.

For men's rooms, however, the concept makes perfect sense.

Six months ago, Johnny Advertising placed ads for Ace Mortgage in the bathrooms of Culpeppers.

"It's a good way for (advertisers) to get their name to people who are doing nothing else with their mind," said Jesse Graftenreed, general manager of Culpeppers in the Central West End of St. Louis.

He believes billboards serve an important, unintended purpose and bring brings great relief to those relieving themselves at urinals.

"Your eyes immediately look for something to do," says Graftenreed. After all, "the secret code of men is to stare straight ahead."

Billboard bathroom ads and some of the new-fangled technology advertisers are experimenting, however, which leaves room for speculation.

Take, for instance, talking billboards. This breed of bathroom billboards is equipped with motion-control sensors that set off audio recordings as unsuspecting people draw near.

ABC News reported late last year that Zoom Media, a Montreal-based company, had placed LaBatt beer ads in nearly 150 bars and pubs in Canada and on university campuses. The audio components jarred a lot of people.

One woman told the news program that, at first, she found the ads intrusive and annoying since mostly male voices were used. "It's jarring to hear a male voice in a woman's washroom," she said.

One man, who was subjected to an ad that was made to sound like an answering machine with voices of family members, didn't like having to hear a message from "his mother" while he was urinating.

Plus, he said, "they scared a lot of drunks at the urinals."

Then there was former "Saturday Night Live" comedian, Norm McDonald, who was shocked and dismayed to learn several seasons ago that advertisers at ABC-TV had created talking billboards for public restrooms to promote his short-lived sitcom "Norm."

McDonald told several reporters, including Post-Dispatch TV critic Gail Pennington, that he believed when making the recordings that they were not actually for public consumption. Furthermore, he was highly embarrassed by the vulgar, "must-pee TV" ads.

Turner, of Johnny Advertising, says they're just not cost effective.

For one thing, he says, they take up a lot more space on bathroom walls and require installers to drill holes.

"It's nice and sexy, and the technology is great, but I've only got X amount of people going into that bathroom," he continues. "It's not like a broadcast venue where you have an infinite number of potential viewers."

Plus, he says, you can only have one per bathroom because you don't want them talking over each other.

"Guy number one walks up to a urinal, and the ad starts talking to him," he says. "Guy number two walks up to the urinal, and it starts talking to him. So then all of sudden you have just noise, and it's not advertising."

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© 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services