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Coffee, Tea or My Ad?

No one reads newspapers anymore, everyone speeds through commercials on their DVRs, and people generally have the attention span of a gnat.

What's an advertiser to do to get your attention? Where can marketers hold you captive?

How about on an airplane, staring for hours at the seatback and tray table in the upright position in front of you?

In a first of its kind deal in the US, AirTran Airways is selling ad space on the backs of seats in all of its 138 jets. The first advertising partner is Mother Nature Network, a "one-stop resource and an everyman's eco-guide" for environmental news, travel, lifestyle, etc. MNN hopes the AirTran exposure will make more people aware of its existence. Its seatback ads will promote a contest for a 7-night Royal Caribbean cruise.

Here is a couple of mock-ups of what the ads are going to look like as they go on board over the coming days.

"We have gone to great lengths to present these advertisements in a tasteful, unobtrusive way that we believe customers will enjoy," says AirTran's VP of marketing Tad Hutcheson.

Enjoy? That may be a stretch.

While I think passengers will eventually get used to the idea of ads staring them at 30,000 feet, I can't help but wonder if there won't be some initial resistance.

"Beats staring at a gray piece of vinyl," says Joel Babbit, CEO of MNN. Babbit launched the website earlier this year with eco-activist Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones. While MNN won't say how much it's spending on the campaign—"it's expensive real estate"—it is seen as the perfect place for a young but fast-growing website to expand its brand. "To communicate our message to every passenger, on every flight, represents real and immediate value," says Babbit. And since all the AirTran flights have Wi-Fi, passengers seeing the ad could log on to find out more about the contest and the website.

AirTran is the first US airline to install this type of advertising, now that it has been approved by the FAA. The ad platform is being provided by Onboard Media Groupwhich has created a system that allows the airline to change ad messages quickly. AirTran already has embedded sponsorship messages into things like seat pockets, napkins, and even flight attendant announcements (those I would love to hear—let me know if you've ever heard one—"This seatbelt demonstration brought to you by Honda").

MNN is hoping to reach two million passengers a month on AirTran using this out-of-the-box leap for a broader market. CEO Joel Babbit is apparently used to thinking outside the box. He used to head the New York office of ad firm Chiat Day, but he's had other marketing jobs, including one where he jokingly toyed with the crazy idea of putting company names on stray dogs--he'd charge more for a logo on a Newfoundland than on a Chihuahua. Putting ads on the backs of airplane seats probably reaches a better clientele.

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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