Coffee table-top ad revenues promise to be more than a handful of beans

The days of the cappuccino-flavoured escape from commerce may soon be gone, reports Alex Benady

Turn on the television and an advertising slogan invariably hits you. Newspapers, magazines, radio, billboards, bus stops and even the buses themselves have become platforms for hectoring us with more sales pitches. It's time to seek respite with a nice quiet cup of coffee.

Turn on the television and an advertising slogan invariably hits you. Newspapers, magazines, radio, billboards, bus stops and even the buses themselves have become platforms for hectoring us with more sales pitches. It's time to seek respite with a nice quiet cup of coffee.

Except the cappuccino is no longer the refuge from the commercial world you'd thought it was. One enterprising British company has found a way of turning the tables we sit at in cafés, restaurants and pubs into yet another advertising medium.

The "ambient media" firm tabletalkmedia has started fitting table tops in coffee bars, food courts and hospital refectories with virtually indestructible laminate surfaces printed with glossy ads for anything from financial services to soaps.

"I was sitting having a coffee with a friend a couple of years ago when it dawned on me that the table top itself represented a huge untapped commercial opportunity," says Lloyd Keisner, the co-founder of tabletalkmedia. It must have been like finding a winning lottery ticket in the street. His company is now sub-letting table tops to advertisers for around £50 per month.

It sounds so obvious that it's surprising that it hasn't been done before. But Keisner says it cost him hundreds of thousands of pounds to develop a stick-on that would withstand constant heat, wiping, scratching, picking and the occasional cigarette burn.

His pitch is that table tops offer advertisers a wide range of advantages. First is the surprising volume of people who see them.

His company has just struck a deal with Coffee Republic to put ads on 1,200 tables in 50 or so of its shops up and down the country. "Coffee Republic alone attracts more than a million customers a month," Keisner points out. That is the equivalent to the readership of a sizeable magazine.

He has also signed deals with the catering giant Compass, which runs restaurants in hospitals and shopping centres, so his current holding is around 5,000 table tops, delivering six million "impressions" a month. And that's just scratching the surface of the millions of table tops that exist in the UK alone.

Despite being a mass medium in every sense, table tops also offer advertisers another benefit; that of targetability. "Coffee Republic happens to attract a preponderance of ABC men, but other outlets will have their own distinct geographical and demographic characters," he says.

But the real prize, and this is why table-top advertising is probably here to stay, say media experts, is that it offers advertisers the thing they crave above all else; our undivided attention. With so much information bombarding us the whole time, we have learned to tune out most advertising, turning a blind-eye to TV commercials, and careering past posters.

"Undivided attention" has been re-branded in advertising-sales-speak as "dwell time" - the period spent in front of a commercial. "For mainstream media it is usually seconds. But research shows dwell-time in cafés or pubs averages 15min. That's a great chance to get your message lodged in people's minds," says Keisner.

But isn't it also a great chance to royally irritate customers who almost by definition are using the café or bar to provide a pause, a break from the hubbub? After all, you don't have to be Naomi Klein to object to your cultural space being co-opted by commercial interests.

Not at all, says Coffee Republic. "Coffee shops are not sacred environments or havens from the outside world. People come in for all sorts of reasons. But we are obviously very concerned not to alienate our customers, and the tests we have done suggest that these ads don't bother anyone in the slightest," argues its trading director, Mike Baker. He says that the company vets both the brands that advertise and the copy they supply, so there is no danger of going in for a sarnie and being confronted with, say, a dog-food or san-pro ad.

He is completely up-front about the motivating factor for table-owners. It's just money. "We're doing this for revenue. We're a commercial operation competing in a tough environment. This will provide us with extra revenue and help us stay competitive."

Coffee Republic could make half a million pounds a year from selling ads on its 1,200 table tops. This type of advertising is likely to mushroom.

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