Commentary

The Carbonation Of Times Square

Digital Outsider-Pepsi Time Square

For a business that is fundamentally about serving its end users, we often forget that the most important part of media is the human element. I think that's especially true when it comes to digital media. We get so caught up in the technology, the data streams, the ability to dynamically serve content and advertising, that we sometimes lose sight of the very people those media are created to serve. Without them, we are nothing more than a bunch of media servers. So I think it fitting to end the year with a column focusing on how digital out-of-home media will activate human beings to usher in the new year with an eco-friendly, or just plain human-friendly, push.

It all begins this evening around dusk, when one of the biggest convergences of digital and human media takes over New York's Times Square for what is the closest thing to a global block party the world will likely ever see. I can't say precisely how many digital outdoor media campaigns will kick off between now and midnight, but judging by the sea of press announcements over the last 48 hours -- during what is ordinarily a lull news period for the media industry -- this year's Times Square New Year's Eve celebration is taking on the auspices of television's Super Bowl. And why not? The media coverage and reach of the celebration of the New Year's countdown draws Super Bowl-level audiences worldwide, and the kind of free press coverage that only a Super Bowl can generate.

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This year's countdown even has a bit of a cola war taking place within it, with the two major beverage brands each leveraging unique digital outdoor media campaigns designed to spread messages of goodwill. Coca-Cola's is the more implicit of the two, using the New Year's countdown as an event to kick off an eco-friendly message by converting its iconic red billboard high atop Times Square from Con Edison's electrical grid to wind power. Coca-Cola claims to be the first to make the switch, but a coalition of 30 digital billboard operators on three buildings surrounding Times Square have joined the movement via an electricity supply agreement with Con Ed's Solutions unit. Collectively, the group's use of wind-powered energy will prevent the release of 1,866 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. To put that in human terms, the wind-powering of Coca-Cola's billboard alone will have the equivalent effect of removing 75 passenger automobiles from the road for one year or converting 38 households to wind power for one year. The "greening" of the Coca-Cola billboard is also equivalent to reducing 376 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually or planting 471.5 acres of trees.

That's good use of media. And it's good PR. And I hope to focus future Digital Outsider columns on how the digital out-of-home industry is helping, not hurting, the environment.

Pepsi Happy2009 refresheverything Meanwhile, Pepsi's campaign will use digital outdoor media as a conduit for humans spreading cheer to each other. Beginning about the time you receive this newsletter, and continuing throughout tonight, Pepsi will enable people in the Times Square area to upload photos and short text New Year's greeting messages onto ABC's Super Sign opposite the "Good Morning America" studios on 44th Street. In fact, thanks to ABC, street teams will take over the "GMA" studio, ushering people in off the street to use the facility to create and upload their personal messages.

If that weren't human enough for you, street teams will also be on hand to pass out Pepsi-branded scarves in the Times Square area, and Pepsi-branded beach balls in other parts of New York City, and the whole thing culminates at 11:56 p.m. in what the Pepsi team has dubbed the "carbonation of Times Square." Four minutes before the ball drops from One Times Square, Pepsi will unleash thousands of balloons brandishing good wishes for the new year. The downpour of bouncing balloons, coupled with images of what is expected to be an effervescent Times Square crowd, will be augmented with carbonated images on digital screens surrounding Times Square. The whole thing will be accompanied by "Imagine," the song written and performed by one of my favorite human beings, the late John Lennon.

There is one last human part of this story that I'd like to mention here, the person who worked behind the scenes to activate the campaign: Erik Petersen, founder and president of Vivid Marketing, and Pepsi's chief "brand ambassador" on the project.

Vivid, a unit of Aegis Media North America, is an experiential marketing firm that specializes in activating people on behalf of brands in public venues. It is Petersen and his team that Pepsi is relying on to get people involved in the digital interactive outdoor media stunt. And he had to work with quite a few people to get it done. People like New York City bureaucrats, event commissioners, police officials, the "GMA" studio staff, and scores of landlords and building operators in the Times Square area.

"My job is to focus on the street level," Petersen says. "We're there to create a little more emotion for Pepsi by doing all the on-the-ground stuff with the half million folks who we expect to be there to celebrate the new year."

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