CHICAGO — On a fast-moving subway train in downtown Chicago, passengers stare out the window at an otherwise dark subway wall that briefly glows red with a filmstrip-like advertisement from Target Corp.
In New York, companies such as Cingular Wireless and the maker of Captain Morgan's rum pay handsomely for the exclusive right to plaster ads all over sections of Penn Station and other high-profile subway stops.
In Atlanta, passengers on some trains gaze at 15-inch flat screens displaying local newscasts — and commercials.
After raising fares, laying off workers or slashing services over the past few years to help plug growing budget gaps, big-city transit systems are scrambling to come up with bold new advertising ventures in an effort to squeeze out extra revenue.
"There comes a point where you can't raise fares or cut services anymore without risking losing riders," said Joel Keller, president of the board of Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco. "We have to look everywhere we can for additional money."
BART's board has approved plans to team with a financial company to offer a "BART rewards" credit card that will let riders earn fare credits with every purchase. BART projects it eventually could take in as much as $1 million a year from the promotion.
The agency also hopes to reap an extra $7 million a year by following Atlanta's lead and installing TV screens in trains and stations — an initiative also planned at transit systems in Boston and Washington, D.C.
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority this spring began equipping each of its 340 rail cars with TV monitors — the nation's first large transit operator to do so. MARTA, which faces an $18 million budget shortfall, says it will reap $2 million in shared ad revenue.
Transit agencies in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities also are testing tunnel ads like the Chicago Transit Authority's Target spot — a series of several hundred still digital images on backlit, transparent panels that creates a flip-book effect as passengers zoom past.
While many riders seem amused by the silent 15-second display on the CTA's Blue Line to O'Hare International Airport, longtime rider Tara Betts worries ads are becoming too pervasive.
"It's becoming more difficult to have quiet personal space without getting bombarded by messages," said Betts, 31.
But marketing experts say transit systems — still stung by lower sales tax receipts from the economic downturn — aren't about to forgo an easy revenue stream because a few members of their captive audiences protest. The CTA will take in $100,000 in annual revenue from a single tunnel ad.
"For the transit system, there is no downside to selling more advertising," said Tobe Berkovitz, dean of Boston University's college of communications.
"Some of the civic do-gooder types might rattle cages because they see cities becoming one more Disneyworld of commercialism," Berkovitz said. "But I think most passengers get used to it."
The CTA board has yet to decide, however, on a consultant's recent suggestion to sell naming rights to certain train stations or routes — one line that few transit systems seem willing to cross.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has stopped short of outright corporate sponsorship with its branding of MTA New York City Transit subway cars and stations, first begun three years ago. Under a typical deal, a company might purchase the right to advertise exclusively on one car on each subway train, or about 600 cars throughout the system.
The deals, known as car branding and "station domination," have helped the MTA build its total advertising revenue from less than $10 million in 1990 to nearly $100 million today.
"So far we haven't gotten bad reactions from our customers," said Christopher Boylan, the MTA's deputy executive director. "I think they understand it's a way for us to try to keep fares down."
Such exclusive ad deals are likely to proliferate as advertisers try to break through the growing clutter of messages, said Brian Till, chairman of the marketing department at St. Louis University.
"Advertisers are looking to own more eyeballs, and one way to do that is to dominate a particular venue," he said.
Transit agencies have shown some restraint, though. Both the MTA and BART have decided against "wrapping" trains in corporate ads, or covering every inch of a rail car, which is done on trains and buses in Chicago and other cities.
The Washington, D.C., Metro system unveiled its first wrapped subway cars in May — a McDonald's promotion — but its board decided to limit the number of eligible subway cars to just 20 of its fleet of 900.
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority warily tested a tunnel ad similar to Chicago's in order to gauge rider acceptance before it decided to add more, spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.
He said most riders' reactions have been positive — similar to that of the Rev. M. Logan Sr., a CTA rider who was tickled by the Target ad.
"That's good advertising," he said. "My little nieces and nephews saw it and they keep asking 'When can we go back in the tunnel?' "