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Busy election bumps People Mover ad revenue

Devin Kelly

It’s a busy election season, and for Anchorage’s bus system, that means booming business in the advertising department.

People Mover officials said revenue from advertising is striding well above projections, a bump of roughly $25,000 over this time last year. Ad spaces are fully booked through Tuesday’s primary.

And, as city transportation director Lance Wilber pointed out, it’s not even November yet.

“It’s hot right now,” Wilber said Friday of ad spaces on People Mover buses, after a Transportation Advisory Board meeting that included an update on revenue projections.

Amid declining ridership and decreased fare revenues, the advertising dollars are an increasingly valuable cushion in the municipal bus service’s budget, even more so in a big election year. Ads supporting Gov. Sean Parnell and Dan Sullivan, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, have appeared on Anchorage buses this year. An ad produced by the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign appeared on People Mover until about a week ago.

The oil-tax referendum dubbed Ballot Measure 1, meanwhile, has generated People Mover ads from the campaigns on both sides of the issue -- sometimes on the exact same bus, Wilber said.

It’s an enterprise that essentially falls to one man. Peter Eberhardt has handled the city’s transit advertisements as a private contractor for 20 years, ever since he noticed some of the city's buses driving around without advertisements in 1994.

Every Sunday, Eberhardt personally places the ads on the buses. He’s from the Midwest and likes to compare his work to farming.

“It’s fertile ground,” Eberhardt said by phone Friday. Eberhardt earns 35 percent of the proceeds.

The most profitable year for People Mover advertising was 2008, according to Eberhardt, when voters went to the polls to vote on the Alaska Clean Water Initiative. The campaign to defeat the measure spiked People Mover’s annual earnings to $615,000, Eberhardt said. 

So far in 2014, Eberhardt estimated the bus service has pulled in some $530,000 in advertising revenue, about $25,000 ahead of last year and on track to break the 2008 record.

“A lot of political money has come forward,” Eberhardt said. 

For the majority of the People Mover bus fleet, advertisers pay between $140 and $130 a week to advertise on either the sides or the back of the vehicles. It costs the most to advertise on the driver’s side of the bus, which has the best visibility, Eberhardt said.

The city vans for paratransit and shared ride service, AnchorRIDES, also offer advertising space, at a rate of $35 per week.

Five buses, meanwhile, are called wraps, where the ad makes up the entire exterior of the bus. Those ads, mainly reserved by corporations such as McDonald’s, come with a hefty price tag: $30,000 a year for the space and an initial deposit of $10,000 for prep work. It costs another $10,000 to print and apply the ad, Eberhardt said.

The Alaska Greek Festival, which began Friday on O'Malley Road, has placed advertisements with People Mover for more than a decade.

“I have so many people come up to me and say, ‘I saw the ad on the bus,’ ” said Father Vasili Hillhouse, the pastor of the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Anchorage, which hosts the festival.

Political campaigns, whether for an individual or a cause, are banking on that kind of visibility to spread messages to the masses. Recently, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska ran a two-week campaign with ads showing a glass of beer, a glass of liquor and a marijuana leaf, with the word “safer” above the leaf.

A controversy brewed a few days after the ad started running, when the campaign added a red sticker to the ads reading “Our opponents AGREE!”, based on comments a spokesperson for the anti-legalization campaign "Big Marijuana. Big Mistake." made at a Soldotna debate on July 29. Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. followed up by sending a letter to People Mover, claiming the stickers skewed the spokesman’s remarks and should be removed. But People Mover refused, saying the stickers had a disclaimer and didn’t fall under any of the restrictions for bus advertisements.

Advertisements for incumbent Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s campaign were due to run until Sunday. The only other political candidate currently being supported by advertising on the buses is Dan Sullivan, running in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate on Tuesday. Those ads were paid for by a third party, not the Sullivan campaign, according to campaign spokesperson Mike Anderson. Eberhardt said he reached out to the other candidates in the Senate election, including Sen. Mark Begich, but has yet to hear back. 

That, Eberhardt said, "points to ... just such a different array of ways to go" in the political advertising arena.    

He also hasn’t yet received a high number of space reservations for political advertisements that would begin running in September or October.

“Everybody’s waiting to see what’s going to happen in the primary," he said.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that bus ads supporting U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan were paid for by Alaska's Energy America's Values, a third-party group not affiliated with the Sullivan campaign.