WASHINGTON — The epiphany hit Jeremy Robbins, appropriately enough, while he was riding in a taxi in the nation’s capital.
Mr. Robbins, the executive director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group devoted to an immigration overhaul, was finishing up a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill when he began thinking about where to place his group’s latest ad — a playful commercial showing how immigrants have played an important role in American innovation.
“I saw a TV in the back of the cab, and I didn’t see any ads related to politics,” he said. “That seemed like a way to put an ad where no one else is doing it, and take advantage of all the right eyes being there.”
Now, the group’s ad runs about every 15 minutes in 1,300 Washington taxis. “I probably get three emails a week from people I know that say: ‘I just saw your ad in the back of a D.C. taxi. It feels like you’re microtargeting me,’ ” Mr. Robbins said.
And that is exactly the point.
Advertising in a city’s taxicabs or transit system is hardly new. But a requirement by the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission that all of the city’s taxis have backseat consoles, which took effect at the end of last year, gave political and advocacy groups a new way to reach the so-called influentials — lawmakers, Capitol Hill staff members, government aides and lobbyists — who help shape the nation’s policies and regulations.
“If you’re going to reach people who are making decisions for the country, you’re probably going to reach them in D.C. taxis rather than anywhere else, and it’s a little more targeted,” said Peter Sullivan, the Northeast sales manager for Creative Mobile Technologies, a main vendor of the consoles, which include a credit card reader.
Or, as Ron Linton, the chairman of the Taxicab Commission, put it, “There is a market here for reaching the minds and eyeballs of people who are involved in these policy issues.”
The potential viewership, Mr. Linton added, is huge, with the city’s roughly 5,700 active taxis providing 18 million to 20 million rides each year.
DC Vote, an organization that advocates full voting representation in Congress for the district, is also running two 15-second ads in the back of Washington taxis. One features Julian Bond, the civil rights leader, and the other features Kimberly Perry, the group’s executive director, both of whom talk about how the people of the city are “second-class citizens” with no vote in Congress.
“The people who ultimately decide our future as to whether or not we’re going to be fully enfranchised Americans work on Capitol Hill, and we know the people who work on Capitol Hill — staff as well as members — use cabs, and the people who influence those people use cabs,” said James Jones, the communications director for DC Vote. “So we think it’s an incredible investment, because those are the people who hold our future.”
Unlike the Partnership for a New American Economy, which pays about $7,000 per month for a 30-second ad, DC Vote gets its airtime from the Taxicab Commission at no charge, as part of a handful of public service announcements it can provide at no cost.
The Taxicab Commission itself is in the process of developing its own public service announcement to show in cabs that promotes the city and its activities, as well as the commission.
The city’s taxi fleet, however, is not the only place where advocacy and issue groups are targeting Washington. The Partnership for a New American Economy is also placing pro-immigration ads on the CNN channel in terminals and some of the lounges at Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport.