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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Driving the Ads

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Well, there's one thing to be said for media advertising - it never gets boring. There's a company in California which has come up with a new advertising medium that has elicited an overwhelming response, both positive and negative. It's either revolutionary or revolting, depending upon whom you listen to.

The company is called Autowraps, and they're offering drivers $300 to $400 a month if they'll allow their vehicles to be wrapped in "a non-damaging vinyl adhesive graphic design" advertising some product or company. Race cars and busses have had ads on them for years, but this is a chance for normal people like you and me to drive around in a billboard. It's a brave new world.

Autowraps' promotional material explains the rationale for advertising on cars excitedly: "The car is king of the outdoors. The sheer physical dominance of the car coupled with the worst traffic congestion levels in history make the personal vehicle a natural medium for outdoor advertising." They also point out that their product will be "one of the only forms of advertising that cannot be switched off, tuned out or lost in a quicksand of other advertisements." They have figured out that the average personal vehicle is averaging 750,000 impressions per month, which I guess means that 3/4 of a million people see your car every month. That sounds high, but if you think about traffic, highways, the cars you pass on the road and those which pass you, and even those vehicles which drive by your parked car at the supermarket or in your driveway, I suppose you could get that many "impressions."

From what I gather, here's how it works: You fill out a form to indicate you're interested, and give information about where you live and your driving habits. This demographic information is then passed along to companies looking to advertise in geographic areas which you frequent, and you and the advertiser sign a contract. You've got to have a clean driving record (no one wants their moving billboards breaking traffic laws), promise to drive 1000 miles per month, wash your car twice a month, park in a conspicuous location on the street (not in a garage), and agree to have installed in your car a Global Positioning Satellite receiver. This GPS system tracks the location of your vehicle every four minutes, recording latitude, longitude and speed. During your car's "monthly inspection" by the company, this information is electronically downloaded so that the company can see where you've driven and ascertain if you've been breaking the speed limit.

They pay $300-$400 a month for a "full-wrap" (the entire exterior of the car, including the two rear windows and the back windshield), $200 per month for a "half-wrap," and $100 per month for just the two rear windows and back windshield (with a special perforated material which you can see out of).

They've already got a couple hundred cars in the program in California, Oregon and Washington and are expanding into other states.

People often make "personal statements" with what they drive; this program is just taking that to a logical (or ridiculous) conclusion.

One critic has called this another example of "ad creep" - the continuous intrusion of advertising into our daily lives. The average American sees (and hears) quite literally thousands of advertising messages per day already. We seem to be rapidly approaching a society where there's an advertising message on nearly every surface of everything - TV, billboards, storefronts, clothes, the walls at ballparks, computer screens, etc.

I'm probably less upset about this than I ought to be, though. At least until the idea catches on, it seems more a curiosity to me than Armageddon. It's interesting and novel - until it gets to be irritating (which it isn't yet, but could easily become pretty quickly ).

I'm more intrigued by the fact that my vehicle makes 3/4 of a million impressions per month (I guess I'd better wash it!), more curious about who would actually rent the outside of their car for advertising space, more worried about whether we're going to see "house-wraps" next or "body-wraps" next.

We believe in capitalism in this country; it's how our economy is based. To a large extent, it's probably one of the factors that's made it possible for us to live as we do. And we live in an advertising and media-saturated culture.

I won't be driving a billboard myself any time soon, but I think it's interesting that lots of people might find this idea attractive. It says something fascinating about our economy, our advertising, and our reaction to media.

And about us.