Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The airport ads you can't miss

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
An air traveler places some of her belongings into a bin at a security checkpoint at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
An air traveler places some of her belongings into a bin at a security checkpoint at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
  • Bob Greene: A Florida entrepreneur found a new way to reach consumers
  • He says captive passengers waiting in security lines are a good market
  • Major companies have bought ads on bottom of bins at security checkpoints
  • Greene says bins provided free in return for right to sell ads

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- An only-in-America tale for some future business-school textbook:

I was standing in a long security line at Midway International Airport in Chicago, waiting with hundreds of other travelers to go through the checkpoints. Things weren't moving especially swiftly.

Eventually I made it to the front, took off my shoes, grabbed a plastic bin and prepared to load my carry-on items into it.

I glanced down before dropping my shoes into the bin.

And saw, at the bottom of it, a colorful advertisement for an online merchant.

Maybe I'd taken note of the ads in the security-line bins before, maybe I hadn't. But on this day I made a point of looking at more of the plastic bins that were stacked up.


Advertisements at the bottoms of all of them.

I found myself shaking my head in grudging admiration. Someone, in this land of unfettered capitalism, had figured it out. While the rest of us were wearily bemoaning the inconvenience of airport security lines, the unhappy series of events that have made them necessary....

While the rest of us were standing in those lines stewing over what the world has come to, one person among us saw a potential moneymaking opportunity just waiting to be snapped up.

While the rest of us were standing in those lines stewing over what the world has come to, one person among us saw a potential moneymaking opportunity.
--Bob Greene

Soon enough I was talking with a fellow named Joe Ambrefe, the founder and chief executive officer of SecurityPoint Media, the company he runs in St. Petersburg, Florida.

He's the guy.

"It was just after 9/11," he said.

In that autumn of 2001, when the airports of the United States were reopening after the terror attacks, he was traveling on a multicity sales trip for a pharmaceutical company.

"I was stuck in the chaos," he said. It was evident that air travel would never be as free and easy as it once had been. The airports were about to become places of lengthy, frustrating waits in line, and of increasingly careful security checks.

As Ambrefe recalls it, the airport in Denver was where the idea hit him. He still has the notes he made to himself that day, written on a paper napkin.

"I looked at all the people around me," he said. "A lightbulb went on.

"This was an audience that was pretty captive."


"An advertising opportunity."

Now ... perhaps you don't think that airport security lines are necessarily the ideal place to pitch products to people. The travelers tend to be in a lousy mood, or at least an irritated one. No one enjoys being stuck in those lines, waiting to be electronically frisked.

Indeed, I have long believed that America's airports are places for which corporations will never attempt to buy naming rights. Cities desperately need revenue, but there is enough unpleasantness associated with the flying experience these days that you'll probably never see Coca-Cola International Airport, or Chevrolet, or Doritos. Companies tend to want people to associate them with happy venues.

Joe Ambrefe is not as shortsighted as I am. "Here is a contained area," he said, referring to the security lines. "Air travelers are a very desirable demographic. It's a fantastic opportunity to speak to them."

It took him several years to reach cruising speed (as it were). His business plan was this:

His new company would design and manufacture bright, white, clean-looking bins for the security lines. Bins that were more attractive than the clunky gray ones that most airports were using. He would offer to provide them free, thus sparing the airports the expense of buying their own. As a sweetener, he would also provide the carts to shuttle the bins that have gone through the checkpoints back to where more travelers are waiting, and would provide the tables for travelers to put their items into the bins. He would promise to replace the bins regularly, so they always looked crisp.

All he asked in return was the right to sell advertising on the floors of the bins.

"Sometimes the best ideas are simple ones," he said.

So far, he said, his bins are in 23 airports (he started with the big ones; he said he is in LaGuardia, JFK and Newark in the New York area, O'Hare and Midway in Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, Seattle, San Diego, Denver, and hopes to rapidly expand). And here are some of the companies he said have advertised with him:

Sony, Microsoft,, Honda, Charles Schwab financial services, Skechers shoes and Amtrak.

(Why Amtrak? It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. If someone is annoyed about the air-travel experience, what better place for Amtrak to appeal for future train business?)

The security lines are a paradoxically ideal place to make a pitch, he said: "The reality is, even though people don't like the lines, they accept the need for them." The advertisements in the plastic bins "can humanize the experience. They can put a smile on someone's face. Bring a chuckle."

And the beauty of it all from a merchandising point of view, he said, is that there's no way to avoid seeing the ads. You can electronically record a television show and zip through the commercials; you can flip through a magazine and skip the advertisements.

But when you finally reach the front of an airport security line, it's just you, and the bin, and the message.

The Transportation Security Administration has signed off on this and has set guidelines for the equipment; SecurityPoint Media doesn't pay the government for the right to put the bins in airports, but the TSA seems to like the idea of a private company picking up the costs. "The program is a good example of a public-private partnership that saves taxpayer dollars," TSA spokesman Nick Kimball told me. The individual airports share in the revenues from the advertising; Ambrefe said that the company now has 30,000 bins in airport security lines.

With this, you would think that advertising may have reached its ultimate saturation point. I asked Ambrefe if he could think of any place that would be off limits to the American advertising industry -- any place where placing an ad might be going too far.

He paused for a moment, then said:

"Not offhand."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.