The ultimate cover-up: How London’s buses get their adverts

Reams of vinyl, super-hot hairdryers and £42,000 for three months: the business of splashing advertising over a single Routemaster.

20 Jan 2017

Some time around 2014, jet black buses started turning heads when they began trundling around the capital.

It wasn’t a radical overhaul of London’s famous red buses; it was a regular number 38 bus, dressed up with an Adidas ad campaign around the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

These branded buses appeared two years after TfL first introduced its Thomas Heatherwick-designed, hybrid-powered buses in 2012, celebrating the original Routemaster bus. There are now 600 of them servicing routes across the capital.

It’s a wrap

For Exterion Media, the company that manages TfL’s outdoor advertising, this was an advertising opportunity to sell to brands using the iconic London symbol.

‘We were lobbying them virtually from day one,’ Exterion’s group development director Jason Cotterrell says. ‘It offered a fantastic creative showcase for brands.’ TfL agreed to let Exterion sell ‘wraps’ on a portion of its new fleet of buses, conscious to make sure there were still enough of those iconic red vehicles on the streets of London.

Along with Adidas, clients so far have included Spotify, Sky and Magnum (who used a lurid pink vinyl to announce the launch of a new raspberry ice cream).


Bumper stickers

Full-body bus adverts pack a punch, but they’re not cheap: to wrap a single bus with a vinyl ad costs at least £12,000, plus a monthly fee of £10,000. Cotterrell recommends campaigning for a minimum period of three months, bringing the total cost to £42,000.

Actually getting these massive adverts on the bus takes a fair bit of manpower. Previously, bus adverts were painted onto the vehicles (see below); today, easy-to-remove vinyl stickers are used. They are designed in 2D – either by the client’s agency or Exterion’s in-house team – before being mocked up into a digital rendering. Tweaks are made to ensure the artwork doesn’t block the windows or licence plates, then it’s sent off to the client for approval.

The stickers are then printed using a large-scale digital printer, on 1.5 metre wide vinyl sheets, ready to be pieced together.

Heat guns

It takes a five-person team around four hours to carefully apply the vinyl stickers. The decorators start from the top then work down, trimming around the wheel arches and lights before using heat guns to mould the vinyl over the different lumps and bumps on the buses. Any air bubbles are popped open and smoothed down using the heat guns.

Cotterrell believes it’s the ostentatiousness that sells the wraps to advertisers. ‘They’ve either got an iconic brand to be launched [against] another icon, the new Routemaster, [or they’re] launching a new identity, image or product,’ he says.


Images courtesy of James Prince and Exterion Media.

This story first appeared in Courier Weekly. Click here to sign up.