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    From ‘Hire Me’ to Better Call Tang, the Quirky World of Metro Ads

    To diversify declining revenue streams, one city metro launched a personalized ad service earlier this year, allowing individuals to purchase ad space for messages ranging from birthday greetings and job searches to marriage proposals and quirky jokes.

    For five days in March, commuters on the Guangzhou Metro in southern China stopped to stare at a curious ad mimicking the hit American TV show “Better Call Saul.”

    With the tagline “Better Call Tang,” the ad showed a man, presumably Tang, pointing directly at the viewer in a pose reminiscent of Saul Goodman. Below it read: “Do you know what you can’t eat for breakfast? Lunch and dinner.”

    This ad is part of the Guangzhou Metro’s new personalized service, aimed at engaging commuters and diversifying ad revenue streams, which have been declining for the past three years. Launched in January, the popular service allows individuals to purchase ad space for personal messages, from birthday greetings to job announcements and marriage proposals to quirky jokes.

    “The goal is to foster deeper connections with passengers, bolster the appeal of subway advertisements, establish a bridge between subway media and riders, and encourage them to spread positivity,” Li Jing, a manager from Guangzhou Metro Media Company, told Sixth Tone.

    Li added that they have experienced a surge in personal advertising orders due to the growing attention online. “Currently, dozens of orders are being made daily, and it shows a growing trend,” she said, without disclosing the exact number of orders received since January.

    While many Chinese cities, including Hangzhou, Chengdu, and Hefei, offer personal advertising services in their metro systems, Guangzhou offers more affordable prices and a convenient ordering process.

    In most cities, customers must call the metro’s advertising department and pay prices ranging from 6,500 yuan ($893) for four weeks in Hangzhou to 8,000 yuan per week in Chengdu. In contrast, Guangzhou allows individuals to order via a mini program on social app WeChat, with prices starting from 380 yuan to 999 yuan depending on broadcast time and location.

    New revenue

    On June 10, Li Linyu surprised her unsuspecting husband with a unique birthday gift: a large lightbox ad at their local Guangzhou subway station. As he descended the escalator, he was greeted with his photos and the message: “Zhun Ge, happy birthday! We’ve been through countless adventures together!”

    Three days before his birthday, Li reserved the ad space for 999 yuan. While she designed the content herself, the ad still required a rigorous review process and a statement confirming “Zhun Ge” was her husband’s nickname and authorizing the use of his photos.

    In a video recorded by Li, her husband was shocked and speechless on seeing himself in the ad, trying to hide behind the camera. Despite his initial reaction, Li said he was delighted and moved by her surprise.

    About two months prior, Wu Jialing, 33, also ordered a personal subway advertisement in Guangzhou for her husband’s birthday. “This kind of surprise is worthwhile because it’s not easy to please an inexpressive person like my husband,” Wu said.

    According to manager Li, since the service was introduced, the personal advertising orders received can be divided into four main categories: affection (birthday and anniversary celebrations), searches (for jobs or partners), flaunting (talent displays), and appreciation (such as thanking teachers).

    On the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, the man who put up the “Better Call Tang” ad in March wrote, “(I’ll be) hanging out for five days at Tiyu Xilu Station. It doesn’t mean anything; just my narcissism.”

    While China’s subway systems are still expanding, the occupancy rate of advertisements has been on the decline. According to data from the China Outdoor Data Corporation, more than half of the advertising spaces on subway print media across the country were vacant in 2023.

    In Guangzhou, advertising revenue in the metro over the past three years decreased from 640 million yuan in 2021 to 336 million yuan in 2023, according to official reports.

    Huang Shengmin, a professor at the Communication University of China, told China Newsweek that to address the issue, subway media resources need to be opened up and advertisers of all sizes mobilized.

    “There is actually a lot of suitable advertising space on subway lines, but it’s not utilized sufficiently,” said Huang. “If they only limit to large-scale enterprise clients, there will be a relative scarcity of advertiser resources.”

    For the Guangzhou Metro, personal ad revenue is relatively small compared to brand placements. While individuals are charged about 666 yuan for five days, brand placements cost significantly more, with prices rising to 48,000 yuan for 28 days. Despite this disparity, the new personalized advertising service has introduced a fresh revenue stream and enriched subway ad content.

    “It seems that Guangzhou Metro is allowing individuals to purchase advertising space for just over 100 yuan per day. But in fact, it is Guangzhou Metro that is buying ‘content’ from individuals to enhance their advertising’s overall effectiveness,” Liu Run, a business consulting advisor, wrote in an article after talking with the company about the practice.

    Additional reporting: Li Dongxu

    (Header image: Tang’s ad in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 2024. From @俏佳人XXX on Xiaohongshu)