Creative and branding consultancy MAYDAY imagine turning the MetroCard system into a city-wide game.

Spurred by the MTA’s decision to sell ads on the front of the MetroCard, founders Congar and Bilko want the city to consider a more participatory scheme, where each MetroCard functions as a piece in a larger puzzle.

Straphangers would each hold a unique key to unlocking the advertiser’s message.

"Advertisers could use the MetroCard to advance their messages, but maybe more interestingly, create unique cards that become precious, either because they’re one-of-a-kind items or link riders together to put together a puzzle," write Congar and Bilko.

The duo compare the cards to Chuck Close’s pixelated dot paintings.

Together, each abstract card becomes a readable image.

The city has a history of running some cool campaigns, projects and competitions in the past," explain the designers. "Considering the track record, we definitely think the city is willing to entertain something like this."

Together, riders would have the power to unlock the full picture, which could have some embedded value.

"We thought about how advertisers can create a campaign that changes commuters’ relationships with the MetroCard," explain MAYDAY.

"Where rather than purchasing any card, they’re hoping the one that comes out of the machine is a specific one, the missing piece of a billboard or window display or artwork."

Advertisers could use the system to engage riders in a more meaningful context than conventional billboards or posters.

As participatory advertising, the system would ask a normally passive audience to get involved--a growing trend known as participatory (or social) advertising.

As participatory advertising, the system would ask a normally passive audience to get involved--a growing trend known as participatory (or social) advertising.

A card printed with pieces of art from a New Museum show could function as ad-hoc marketing for the exhibition.

Co.Design

Turning NYC's Iconic MetroCard Into A Massive Urban Game

Willy Wonka would approve.

Last week, New York’s beleaguered Metropolitan Transit Authority announced plans to sell advertising on the front of the MetroCard. Soon, for prices ranging from 18¢ to 51¢ per card, advertisers will have free reign to replace the MTA’s ubiquitous blue-and-yellow swoosh (which hasn’t changed since 1997!) with a design of their choice.

How did New Yorkers react to the news? Much in the same way New Yorkers react to any news relating to the city: by fighting with each other about it. Pragmatists pointed to the cash-strapped MTA’s desperate need of funds. Nostalgists--among them, the New York Times--called the ads a “defacement” of a classic piece of New York ephemera. Cynics saw the decision as another step towards the city’s total corporate sponsorship.

Wayne Congar and Brendan Bilko, two young Brooklyn designers who run a creative and branding consultancy called Mayday Mayday Mayday, think the plan suffers from a simple lack of imagination. “Let’s face it, most MetroCard advertising is going to suck,” says Congar. Shrinking a poster-sized ad and reproducing it on millions of cards? Yep, pretty boring. And, as the duo point out, a huge missed opportunity for the city. “The MTA prints around 170 million MetroCards each year,” explain Congar and Bilko. “The cards’ circulation is immense, the compounded advertising space is incredibly large. It’s a ripe opportunity to create a collective experience or game or public work.”

Mayday is proposing an alternative that could please critics on all sides of the table. Their idea is to let advertisers engage New Yorkers in an urban game, where each rider holds a key to unlocking a larger image with some embedded value. Think of it as a giant puzzle, where every MetroCard is a unique puzzle piece. “We started thinking about the excitement of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets, maybe the most engrossing participatory marketing campaign of all time,” Congar tells Co.Design. “Scavenger hunts and high-profile public art works can take over the city. Remember Christo’s gates? I think it was the lead on both Letterman and Conan’s monologues for a week." They imagine using the MetroCard system as a tool to promote events, make announcements, and yes, even advertise.

While it’s only a theoretical proposal, and it’s still unclear whether the MetroCard printers are capable of supporting individualized card designs, Congar and Bilko hope their idea will turn heads within a cash-strapped city government, where advertising is a major source of income. In the age of participatory marketing, that can mean more than just extra Dr. Zizmore ads on your way to work. “Consumers have a lot of options to either ignore or engage,” adds Congar. “What’s interesting, then, is to find incentives for people to engage that have more to do with making a choice to be part of something, than getting a deal or cash back.”

More on the project on Mayday’s website, here.

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8 Comments

  • BKZ

    Iconic? 1997 was 15 years ago. Tokens were iconic. This is just replacing one mediocre design with an even less attractive one.

  • M Sarkar

    I would keep part of the Metro card transparent, allowing for translucent stickers ("game pieces") to be placed on the card. 
    Sell the translucent stickers almost like lottery tix, or discount them partially (ad-supported). A transparent pattern on the 
    mass-produced card + pattern from custom sticker + strategic placement on the card = complete game piece, which then needs to be matched with billboards/whatever scattered around the city.

  • M Sarkar

    To elaborate, purchase of the card gives the customer a FREE entry piece, albeit a partial piece. The FREE part is important. Thereafter, customer has the option to actively acquire the "add-ons" and participate in a promotion, which could be varied by location, time, even by "partial codes" that are disseminated through social networking.

    Would be happy to continue the conversation. I'm  @3sarkar on Twitter.

  • Matt

    This is the MTA we are talking about, the same people responsible for the Long Island Rail Road. Talk about shitty service. 

  • Max Drukman

    While a city-wide game sounds like fun, this proposal strikes me as a typical "let's replace the revenue-generating ads with something more fun, but with no clear revenue stream" idea. The whole point of the advertising is to generate the revenue, guys.

    Also, did Congar and Bilko consider what would happen with several million hyper-competitive New Yorkers all trying to "win"?

    Scary.

  • t3d

    So every card will have a different image? If they're trying to keep production costs down I don't think this is the way.

  • zschmiez

    They aren't paying the production costs, sponsors are.

    "Please stand clear of the closing budget"