How to Catch a Criminal: FBI Utilizes Digital Bus Shelters

By Rudy Tardin

Nvate FBI catch a criminal with digital bus shelters by Clear Channel

Credit: FBI Washington field office

Interactive website—check. Social media presence—check. Flashy billboards and posters—check. This may sound like the large-scale, strategic marketing campaign developed by an auto manufacturer using a multifaceted media platform to advertise its latest eye-popping model to the mass consumer. However, the FBI is now employing a similar strategy in its regional and national campaigns searching for wanted criminals and missing persons.

In January 2013, the FBI launched an interactive website that allows the public to aid the agency in the search for unknown bank robbers. In Washington, D.C., to advertise the wanted robbers and the new website created to catch them, the agency utilized another one of its creative advertising tools—digital bus shelters.

“They’re another tool to help reach people who might not normally read their news stories, go to our website or watch the evening news, but they are standing at bus shelters getting to work,” said Lindsay Godwin, public affairs specialist at the FBI’s Washington field office. “This is just another opportunity to reach a population that we might not normally be able to reach.”

Since starting in early 2011, digital bus shelters have become an outdoor advertising medium staple to Washington, D.C. In particular, this is because of city height regulations, which prohibit most tall structures. This includes roadside digital billboards, which the FBI has had success with on a national platform. Due to the lack of digital billboards in the U.S. capital, the agency worked with media giant Clear Channel to come up with the digital bus shelter idea, according to Godwin.

Similar to large, highway digital billboard screens, bus shelter FBI ads appear for about 12 seconds on 72-inch screens in between other advertisements, and feature photos of unknown bank robbers, a tip line to call and the new website address, according to Godwin.

Nvate FBI catch a criminal with digital bus shelters by Clear Channel

Credit: FBI Washington field office

Because digital bus shelter screens stand at street level, an individual can be walking by, driving by or taking public transportation, which means many people see the ads in a short amount of time, creating a unique advantage, said Godwin.

Planning different media campaigns can vary by individual case with the information available to disseminate, but the technology allows the FBI to display an ad within hours if needed. For example, according to Godwin, two bank robberies occurred on the morning of Feb. 7, 2013, at two different banks within 20 minutes of each other. Aware of the robberies, Godwin says she reached out to the case agent, who approved the release of information to the public. She then contacted Clear Channel to run a bus shelter ad. By the end of the day, ads displaying a photo of the unknown robber, location and time of the robberies scrolled at different bus stops around the city. According to Godwin, 50 bus shelters currently run ads for wanted, unknown bank robbers.

Depending on the available ad rotation space on the scrolls, an FBI wanted message can pop up even sooner. “We can get it up within an hour,” said Steve Ginsburg, president of Clear Channel Outdoor’s Washington, D.C., division, about the ease of displaying an FBI ad with open rotation space. According to Ginsburg, 80 total digital bus shelter boards are scattered throughout the city in which the FBI uses to its advantage.

The FBI’s growing arsenal of advertising outlets appears to be effective for the agency. According to an FBI press release, bank robbery occurrences in Washington, D.C., declined to 49 robberies in 2012, nearly half the number of robberies from the previous year.

“We have declined over the last five, six years in the number of bank robberies,” said FBI agent Erin Sheridan of the Washington field office.

“On any given day, you can receive 10 tips,” said Sheridan about bank robberies. “When it comes to cold cases, in the course of several months, you may receive an easy 100 to 200 tips. It depends on the time frame that you’re looking at.”

Nvate FBI catch a criminal with digital bus shelters by Clear Channel

Credit: FBI Washington field office

Although no captures can be directly attributed from bus stop ads, a number of leads, phone calls and tips from the public, which Sheridan calls “successes,” contribute to the criminal searches including high profile cases such as the “Potomac River Rapist,” said Sheridan.

“It’s an immediate hit for the public to give us a call,” Sheridan stated.

Elsewhere, the FBI takes advantage of other creative digital advertising mechanisms. In New York City, similar wanted ads flash on the back of sidewalk newsstands, the top of subway entrances and on large billboard screens in Times Square, the mecca of billboard advertisements. Across the country, the agency uses a network of over 3,000 digital billboards that helped solve 50 cases in the last five years.

“Digital billboards and bus shelters could be attributed to people calling in,” said Godwin. “Publicity definitely helps.”

To help identify unknown bank robbers, the public can search by city, field office, suspect nickname, click on a Google map, and enter anonymous tips on the national website.

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