Bus shelters were once boringly functional affairs, built solely by local councils. Some were iron-and-glass edifices covered in peeling municipal green paint; others were made of brick; some in rural areas even had thatched roofs. Then in 1969, two advertising billboard companies, More O’Ferrall and London and Provincial, joined together to form a company called Adshel. The idea behind the new firm was simple: Adshel would supply bus shelters to local authorities for nothing, in return for the right to display advertising on them. In the early 1970s, it began installing its first shelters in Leeds, which is why the Adshel bus shelters in Leeds are still numbered “0001”. The ads were displayed in “6-sheet” panels - now universally known as “Adshels”, whether they adorn shelters or other places like supermarkets and motorway service stations.
Bus-shelter ads really started to boom in the 1980s. In 1984 Adshel launched a campaign for a fictitious product called “Amy”. Market research revealed an impressive awareness of this imaginary product among the public – and since it could only have come from bus shelters, it proved the value of advertising in them. Then, in 1988, a new data system called OSCAR (Outdoor Site Classification and Audience Research) provided information on vehicle and pedestrian traffic for poster sites. This allowed advertisers to direct their campaigns at passing pedestrians and motorists as well as bus users. Bus shelters soon had illuminated posters and cantilevered roofs so the adverts could be seen by everyone.
Adshel and its rival firm JCDecaux now supply most of Britain’s bus shelters. The bus shelter is no longer just somewhere to wait for a bus; it has become a marketing opportunity. These two firms have built themselves into global brands – bus-shelter builders to the world. They are increasingly branching out into other types of street furniture, one of the fastest growing areas of the advertising industry. In a post-Thatcherite world in which local authorities contract out many of their public services to private companies, our towns and cities are being colonised by advert-laden objects – not just bus shelters but automatic toilets, benches and litter bins.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.’ - Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room