Faced with a growing avalanche of selling messages, the average consumer has become expert at screening them out and advertisers are having to use ambush tactics.
The unlucky London commuter is packed like a sardine in the Underground train, hanging, as usual, on to a handle dangling from the carriage ceiling.
A woman's nose is thrust uncomfortably close to his upstretched armpit. Embarrassed, he wonders whether she can smell any body odour, and decides to change arms as discreetly as possible. As he does so, he looks up and there, stuck close to the dangling handle, is an advertisement for Vaseline Intensive Care deodorant. An ambush advertiser has struck again.
Ambush advertising - advertising designed to creep up on you and hit you just when you were least expecting it - is proliferating. Whether consumers are at work, in supermarkets, public places and leisure venues, on the move between them, or even at home, ambush advertisers are constantly searching for ways to reach them.
Most office workers nowadays take it for granted that their mugs, pens, mouse pads, PC screen-savers, jotting pads, Post-It notes and calendars will be plastered with some brand name. Many supermarket trolleys now carry an ad, as do all carrier bags and most sales receipts.
Advertisers are even printing selling messages on supermarket eggs or putting stickers on fresh lemons, as Tango did when it launched its lemon flavour. Likewise, sports arenas are now covered with ads on the perimeter fences, on the players and, increasingly, on the pitch itself.
Tube and railway station floors are another growth media - after all, people can't help looking where they're trying to walk. Adidas has got its name on the basketball hoops of local authority parks. And, at some events, such as the Atlanta Olympics, even the sky has been a medium, as companies such as AT&T send up aeroplanes to cover it with ads written in smoke letters at least a mile long.
Meanwhile, out in the streets, next to all the posters and shop signs, it's commonplace for umbrellas, caps, and T-shirts to boast brand logos, while in the car on the way home, the key ring is also branded. Back home, as you take the lid off your home delivery Indian meal, there's a good chance that it will have an ad blasted across it.
And, when you are sitting on the loo, wishing you hadn't had that vindaloo, Tabasco has the answer. It offers special toilet paper printed with the message 'Didn't you wish you had mild Tabasco instead?' OK, some ambush ads are gimmicky or just plain silly but they carry a serious message about media trends - and the marketers' response to them.
Faced with a growing avalanche of some 3,000 selling messages a day, the average consumer has become expert at screening them out. Increasingly, marketers are finding themselves in competition with each other to 'earn the right to invade consumers' space', warns Graham Bednash, of media strategists Michaelides and Bednash. If you don't want to start paying people to see or listen to your commercials (as some advertisers are already doing), then catching them unawares through unconventional media is an alternative strategy, he suggests, provided it 'clicks', as the Vaseline ad in the tube so obviously does.
So where will it all end? Martin Sorrell, group chief executive of the world's largest marketing services company, WPP, sees huge potential in targeting consumers' 'ear time'. This is because ear time can be used to catch people when they are doing a host of other things such as driving, cooking, shaving or playing golf.
More generally, marketers are realising that potentially 'everything is a medium,' argues Bednash. 'What distinguishes modern advertising is that it has jumped from the human voice and printed poster to anything that can carry it. Almost every physical object now carries advertising, almost every human environment is suffused with advertising, almost every moment is calibrated by advertising.'
Take Coca-Cola, for example. Media advertising is now 'just part of what we're doing,' says Sergio Zyman, its chief marketing officer. 'We know that everything we say and do communicates - the trucks, the sports tie-ins, point-of-sale, the ads, everything. And, for that matter, everything we don't say and don't do communicates. We have to activate all our communications in relevant ways to consumers.'
Now, Coca-Cola has made a commitment to train its marketers to 'see where Coca-Cola is not'. As the late Coca-Cola chief executive Roberto Goizueta has explained, 'when our people walk into any environment, they don't see Coca-Cola, they see where Coca-Cola is not' - an environment, in other words, where the environment itself is a potential marketing platform.