A barge turns into a billboard, a bathroom stall turns into a car and billboards go up in the park - for your dog. What some may view as ad creep, savvy advertisers are seeing as creative new avenues they can use to speak to their target audiences.
The growing trend toward unusual ad placements heralds an evolution in creativity as the industry moves away from more traditional ad venues such as print and television.
No longer classified as simply "outdoor advertising," the new ways of delivering messages include everything from wrapping toll booth arms to putting tattoos on people and are now considered "ambient advertising" - a pleasant euphemism for making ad space out of anything you can think of.
But rather than supplanting traditional advertising media, the expansions are serving as effective complements to old standbys and ad-industry watchers say the trend makes sense.
"What happens in advertising is something known as 'wearout effect,' " says Ashwin Joshi, a marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.
"It's not just the ad that wears out on you," Ashwin says. "It's also the location. As an advertiser, you've got to keep things fresh, not just in the message but also the medium."
Though ad agencies have always pushed to expand their creative reach, innovative placements have snowballed in recent years.
"It's one of those things where I truly feel like one day everybody woke up and said: 'OK! Now!' " says Andrew Simon, creative director at DDB Toronto, of the exploding phenomenon.
"It's a bizarre thing," he says. "It's been talked about for a long time, but when people really got serious about it, it almost became a tidal wave."
DDB has been responsible for several unusual campaigns that stretch traditional ad boundaries such as installing a giant mousetrap in downtown Vancouver as part of a car theft-prevention campaign. A recent campaign for Toronto Crime Stoppers involved putting decals made to look like bullet holes on the windows of cars and stores. The campaign, done in Toronto's higher-crime neighbourhoods, was intended to promote Crime Stoppers' Cash for Guns program by raising awareness for the program and shaking some motivating fear into community members.
"The message was basically: 'Help us find illegal handguns before they find you,' " Simon says. "We invented a medium that didn't exist, basically taking it to the streets and saying: 'This is potentially where (a gunshot) could happen.' " Other agencies have gone over the top in more friendly ways to get attention. Cossette Vancouver led an initiative for Tourism BC that involved decorating a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station into a three-dimensional B.C. landscape - complete with a live-action Queen Elizabeth and a drag queen. The program was an experimental move for Tourism BC, which had traditionally only used television in the San Francisco marketplace.
"We decided to test the new medium in that place and we actually found we had greater success in terms of people making calls and actual bookings to travel to B.C.," says Tim Monaghan, vice-president media director at Cossette Vancouver.
He adds that the installation "significantly overachieved" business expectations.
Though wrapping a station in advertising is no longer particularly unusual, Cossette took the idea a step further by making the campaign a full-scale installation.
Joel Tkatch, a marketing manager at Tourism BC, says that moving beyond traditional advertising vehicles and bringing the station "to life" was key to the campaign's success.
"We bought every track poster, every set of stairs and even added more (ad spaces)," Tkatch says. "We took concrete posts and turned them into totem poles, turned them into trees.
"The consumers that were going through the station all thought it was the first time anyone had done an exclusivity at that station, but it was actually the third," Tkatch says. "Ours was just the first time that anyone had noticed."
But where exactly is the line between effective drag-queen ambassadors and potentially less effective and more ephemeral tactics, such as Sony's fake graffiti campaign to promote a new handheld game player, which may have gained more detractors than customers?
"When you cross from new media into creating your own media, the question is, is that a sustainable medium?" Simon says. "It's a very exciting time because everybody's thinking about how to create new mediums, but it's another thing when this is a sustainable entity and not a stunt.
"It's always a challenge of legitimizing certain vehicles in terms of how many people are actually consuming it and if it's a meaningful interaction," he says.
Simon and Monaghan agree that an ad message won't be sustainable - however innovative - unless it's appropriately targeted. And that's part of the beauty of moving into new realms of advertising.
"Outdoor used to be very much a mass medium and by going into these different approaches, we're able to find out where our consumers are going and we're able to communicate with them in the places that they live and socialize," Monaghan says. He adds that the unique approaches have the additional benefit of causing "a lot of noise in the market, too."
Indeed, as unusual ad placements veer more and more off the beaten path, there is a move toward an expressive mode in which the medium is becoming almost as large a player as the message.
"It's an exciting time and I think it comes down to those who embrace this will be successful and those who are stuck on what's the next TV ad, they're the ones that are not going to be around in a few years," Simon says.
"Clients are going to understand the potential and want interesting ideas, better ideas, the next idea, the next medium, and whoever can deliver that will win this game," he says.
(Liz Clayton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)