Geico's Gecko Takes George Washington Bridge

Beginning as early as next week, motorists crossing the George Washington Bridge and traveling the New Jersey Turnpike will be greeted by "Drive Safely" messages and the Web address for Geico Corp.

The automotive insurer, through its ad planning and buying agency, Horizon Media of New York, struck a deal with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to be the exclusive advertiser on the bridge and at tollbooths. While terms of the Port Authority deal weren't disclosed, it is reportedly a two-year $1.6-million a year contract with options to renew.

According to TNS Media Intelligence, Geico was one of the insurance category's top advertising spenders, allocating an estimated $400 million to television, print, online and out-of-home media in 2005. Its spending this year is up an estimated 20% for the first nine months. Since Geico foregoes sales agents and sells directly to consumers, its advertising and direct mail are the sole driver of calls to its 800 number and users to its Web site.



Horizon Media CEO Bill Koenigsberg said more than 300,000 vehicles daily pass through the Port Authority's tollbooth -- which connects New Jersey to New York, Connecticut and beyond. He noted that Geico has a similar arrangement with Florida's Turnpike Enterprise along its estimated 600 miles of highway.

Geico will use the George Washington bridge to kick off a "Drive Safely" campaign. The Chevy Chase, Md.-based insurer, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, also gains exposure on the Port Authority's Web site (which receives an estimated 2 million visits each week) and in direct mail. In addition, Geico gets access to Port Authority locales -- including bus stations and terminals -- to stage public relations events, Koenigsberg said.

Canopies over the toll plaza will feature a "Drive Safely" sign and each tollbooth will feature a pinup of Geico's cheery lime green Gecko spokes-character with the Web address.

The Port Authority is among scores of commissions trying to offset the high costs of roadway maintenance and improvement by selling rights to signage. In neighboring Pennsylvania, the Turnpike Commission has received responses from some 48 companies interested in helping determine whether to lease its 531-mile highway, one of the busiest in the U.S.

Companies that submitted expressions of interest by the Dec. 22 deadline included investment banks such as Banc of America Securities Inc., Bear, Stearns & Co., Goldman, Sachs & Co., J.P. Morgan, Merrill Lynch and UBS Investment Bank. A consortium consisting of Cintra of Spain and Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia, successful bidders for Chicago's 7.8-mile Skyway toll bridge and the Indiana toll road, were also among the companies that expressed interest in leasing the turnpike.

According to various news reports, about 26 states have enacted or are weighing bills that would allow them to lease toll roads and other public assets to private companies in the hope of matching the windfall realized by Chicago when it signed a $1.8 billion long-term lease for the Skyway, its main commuter link with Indiana.

That deal allowed Chicago to replenish its reserves and repay debt, and propelled other states to explore public-private ventures.

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