Originally created 03/14/97

Firm Counts on New Yorkers' Squeamishness About Bacteria



NEW YORK - Newcomers to this city get two standard pieces of advice from New Yorkers: Never go into Central Park after dark. And always wash your hands after you ride the subway.

Gotham Inc., the advertising agency for a new antibacterial hand lotion made by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., is taking advantage of New Yorkers' squeamishness about bacteria by putting ads on the subway that remind them of the germs they're encountering.

"You are the 423rd person to touch that pole today. Enough said," cautions one of seven slogans the ad agency created for Keri hand lotion.

The advertisers call it the "eew factor." And New Yorkers seem to be getting the message.

"Sure I worry about germs on the subway," said Mica Camucho, as she rode the B train downtown Thursday morning. "For the longest time I would wear gloves or I wouldn't touch anything. But then I lost them, and now I forget about it, but I know (germs are) still there."

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York is proud that subway cars in the city are cleaner than they used to be. Commuters encounter eau de Clorox at many subway stations, where bleach and water solutions are used to wash down the platforms and remind riders of cleaning procedures.

Still, at rush hour, the cars contain multitudes of sneezing, wheezing people, and the ads remind riders: "This car has room for 324 people (and trillions of germs)."

Or, "The last guy holding that pole was named Sal Monella."

New York is the only place where the subway germ campaign is running. The national campaign for the Keri antibacterial lotion features a mother and child in television commercials, emphasizing the mother's concern about germs.

But the germ campaign has been so successful that the agency is considering taking it on the road to other cities that have subway systems.

Jennifer Lauren, a copy writer at Young & Rubicam, said while she waited for a subway car Thursday morning that she tries not to touch the poles on the subways and, if she does, she washes her hands afterward. She noted that subway riders in other cities might not feel the same way about their subway cars. "The subways in Washington are immaculate," she said.

"We're not trying to single out subways as any worse than public telephones or elevators," said Robin Korval, the account director for the Keri campaign. "But the subway has a captive audience and it's a place where people are aware of germs, so it was an ideal venue."

The ads run along the top of 570 subway cars on all the lines in the city.

Bristol-Myers Squibb hired a microbiologist to swab down New York's subway poles, doorways and seats and count the germs. "The subway. One token per person. Germs ride for free," one ad panel says.

"It's a funky, tongue-in-cheek campaign for New York City, where the people get the joke," said Gail Taryn, a spokeswoman for Gotham.

Not every New Yorker worries about the disease-causing germs on the subways. "Crime on the subways is the biggest germ," said Sean Cinermaie, an insurance agent.

A spokesman for the Centers for Infectious Diseases said his agency has not tested the effectiveness of the lotion, which Bristol-Myers Squibb says lasts up to 12 hours. But as for the germiest places, he said the subways may not be No. 1. "Hospitals and day-care centers come to mind first," he said.

And Bristol-Myers Squibb may want to consider a different approach in Washington, where politicians must attract a lot of germs - from shaking so many hands, of course.