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Billboards at the GW Bridge?

Jan 6, 2007

By MIKE KELLY

YOU PROBABLY know this scene all too well. It is a morning rush hour, a weekday. You're behind the wheel of your car and weaving through the river of North Jersey traffic heading toward the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge.

You round the bend near Fort Lee - and stop.

Another day, another traffic jam. You spend the next 30 minutes staring at the trunk of the car inches from your front bumper.

Well, fellow drivers, not to worry. This boring scene is about to change.

Thanks to the Port Authority, starting later this week, drivers will have something new to gaze at - a green lizard.

This lizard is the mascot for the Geico insurance firm, which is paying the Port Authority $3.2 million for a billboard to advertise itself for the next two years. That billboard - 64 feet long by 6 feet high will sit atop the bridge toll booths and will include Geico's name, a picture of its green gecko mascot, and this inspiring message: "Drive safely."

Definitely a beautiful addition to the scenery, right?

The Port Authority argues, with good reason, that it needs more revenue to operate its mini-empire of bridges, tunnels, airports, train lines and bus terminals, along with its own police force and regiments of office workers. By themselves, just the increased security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks have stretched Port Authority budgets, officials say.

Using the bridge for gimmicks

But it's one thing to need more money. It's something else to use such a venerable structure as the George Washington Bridge as a draw for a billboard that includes the image of a lizard.

Adding to the insult, the authority isn't making all that much money. Yes, $3.2 million is hardly chump change to ordinary folks. But it represents only about a half-a-percent increase in the authority's annual revenue from tolls at the George Washington Bridge.

So in return for cluttering up the already crowded Fort Lee skyline near the bridge, the authority isn't achieving its goal of substantially adding to its revenues. Why do this?

In a statement, Stephen Sigmund, the Port Authority's chief of Public and Government Affairs, offered this explanation of the new ad link between a great, gray bridge and a puny green lizard:

"This partnership is a part of a pilot sponsorship program aimed at exploring appropriate new revenue opportunities for the agency to help offset rising security and other costs. We will continually reevaluate the program to ensure that is in keeping with our commitment to customers, to safety and to working with the communities the Agency represents."

Aiming to increase revenues

If this is an experiment, what's next?

The Port Authority says it hopes to eventually increase overall revenues by about $100 million a year in its $3 billion annual budget by selling ad space. To reach such a goal, the authority is going to have to sell a lot more space for ads.

At Kennedy International Airport, travelers using power outlets for laptop computers are now greeted by ads for Samsung electronics. Who knows what else is next? A spokesman for the firm that helped to create the Geico billboard deal says the Port Authority's facilities are basically the equivalent of a blank canvas awaiting an advertising artist.

So consider the possibilities: Casino ads on the ramps to the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan? Beer ads on a parking garage at Newark Liberty International Airport? Tire ads on billboards looking down on drivers as they roll into the Lincoln Tunnel?

The Port Authority claims all ads will be done in good taste and that the George Washington Bridge is not about to become swathed in ads like the scoreboards at Yankee or Shea stadiums. But with a green lizard prominently displayed on the first billboard, the standard for good taste obviously has been lowered.

As for Geico, does it really expect that drivers in traffic jams or dodging 18-wheelers on the way to E-ZPass lanes are actually going to re-think their auto insurance after viewing a billboard that hangs over the toll booths? Then again, 54 million vehicles pass through those eastbound tolls each year. Maybe there are a few drivers who will be inspired to change auto insurance carriers after gazing upon a lizard on a billboard.

A gamble

This is the great gamble, of course. Can Geico actually get more customers with a billboard on the bridge toll booths?

And how about that added message to "drive safely"?

Will Jersey drivers change their ways?

Not likely.

The next time you approach the toll booths on the upper deck, just remember what you could be looking at.

You could be gazing at the beautiful towers of the bridge. Or a golden sunrise. Or a yellow moon above the city lights.

Instead you'll be looking at a lizard.

* *

Mike Kelly is a Record columnist. Contact him at kellym@northjersey.com. Send comments about this column to The Record at letterstotheeditor@northjersey.com.

(c) 2007 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.



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