Black cabs make the switch to the colour of money: Nigel Cope encounters mixed feelings among London's cabbies about turning taxis into mobile advertising

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ROBERT Amass, a London taxi driver for 32 years, will not have them in the cab. 'I'm not interested. They can poke their 15 quid.' he says. Ray Fender, a cabbie who lives in Welwyn, Kent is more sanguine. 'It's not much money but it helps pays the bills. But I know a lot of owner-driver cabbies won't take them because they think it spoils the look of the cab.'

The London taxi drivers are talking about black cab advertising, the commercials that appear on the back of the flip-up seats, on the door panels and in some cases over the whole body of the cab.

Adverts first appeared on London taxis in 1928 but were scrapped a few years later after the bus companies complained it was denting their advertising revenue.

It was only in 1982 that they returned, after a Royal Parks Act was amended to enable the carrying of advertising through the parks.

But in the past two years, the medium's popularity has been taking off. Now, of the 17,000 registered black cabs in London, most carry advertising and the trend has spread to other cities such as Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry and Newcastle.

In September, United Airlines introduced 170 distinctive yellow and black taxis to promote its London-New York routes. (The yellow front of the cab is supposed to mirror a New York taxi, the black rear, a traditional London cab.)

Mercury's payphones business has 12 liveried cabs featuring the sky-blue colour scheme and the Harry Enfield character, while 1,500 more sport Mercury ads on the backs of seats.

'It's certainly a growth area,' says Jamie Borwick, chief executive of Manganese Bronze, manufacturer of the traditional black taxi.

One reason for the growth of the medium is the increasingly active advertising agencies that specialise in the field. Taxi Media, which claims to be the largest, and Louis Barnett, are two helping to drive the market. They claim the mobility of a London taxi makes it a low- cost, highly efficient method of raising awareness.

'If you want a long-term presence in London, cab advertising is very cheap,' says Martin Kelway- Bamber, managing director of Taxi Media.

The costs are certainly competitive. According to Taxi Media's ratecard, a fully liveried taxi, such as those operating in the colours of United Airlines or the Financial Times, will cost pounds 7,800 per taxi for a minimum of 10 cabs, sliding down to pounds 7,000 for an order of 70 cabs or more.

A panel on the front door costs about pounds 30 a month and the seat panels between pounds 5 and pounds 8 a panel per month depending on the number of cabs and the length of the campaign.

A fiver a month for a panel inside a taxi, where the passenger is a captive audience, doesn't seem much. Even pounds 7,000 a year for a liveried cab seems good value for an advert on four wheels, roving around central London for up to 12 hours a day.

By comparison, a set of 50 billboards booked through the outdoor advertising agency More O'Ferrall will cost pounds 126,000 for four weeks. And one 48-sheet poster site in central London, booked through Maiden outdooor advertising, will cost pounds 400 a month.

No wonder the advertisers are happy. 'We wanted to find a medium we could dominate,' says Jonathan Sumner, United Airlines' passenger marketing manager. 'We also neeeded to make our marketing spend go further and this is good value and very flexible. We use the cabs for PR events, picking up guests from the airport, and also for themed events. We will be doing some tracking to see if it is working but I'm confident so far.'

Mercury is equally satisfied. In addition to the 12 blue cabs and 1,500 seat ads, it has printed 30,000 taxi receipts with a Mercury advert on the reverse side.

'It matches our target market in geographic and demographic terms, as most of our payphones are in London,' says Mark Heraghty, marketing manager of Mercury Payphones.

In July, Mercury used the cabs to ferry the company directors to the annual meeting, then left them parked prominently outside the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane. 'You don't see an immediate response. It's an awareness-building programme. But we will continue the campaign,' Mr Heraghty says.

But if the advertisers and the agencies are happy, some taxi drivers are not. Of the pounds 7,700 an advertiser pays for a liveried cab, the driver, or fleet owner, receives just pounds 1,000 - about pounds 2,100 covers costs and the rest goes to the ad agency.

Most cabbies use the cash as the deposit to buy a new cab - prices start at about pounds 20,000 for the Nissan-engined 2.7-litre traditional shape. From the seat panels, which cost an advertiser pounds 30 a month, the driver gets just pounds 15 a year.

As one angry driver put it: 'If someone came up to me privately and wanted to advertise on the cab I might do it, but not otherwise. The agencies are having a laugh.'

The recession has forced others to take a different view. 'Some refuse, but what with the state of the trade at the moment, I've noticed a lot take ads when they need a few quid,' cabbie Ray Fender says.

Not surprisingly, the agencies are anxious to defend their rake-off. 'We bear most of the overheads, such as fixing the panels or producing the liveried cabs with our paint transfer system,' says Mr Kelway- Bamber of Taxi Media, which adapts the taxis in the bays at its South London offices. He points to a list of 200 drivers waiting for liveried cabs as evidence that many are happy with the arrangements.

'There is more to mounting these campaigns than meets the eye,' says Andrew Barnett, a director of the Louis Barnett agency. 'We don't get many complaints.'

Not all cities condone the dawn of the colour co-ordinated cab. Edinburgh, for example, has barred liveried cabs as garish. But others have accepted that a taxi cab is just another prime site for an advert. Providing other cities do not join Edinburgh's city fathers, hailing a cab looks destined to become an increasingly colourful and commercial affair.

(Photograph omitted)