Marketing No Escape

Brace yourself for yet another invasive advertising blitz on the highway. While billboards and car radios have long bombarded drivers, now global positioningsystem (GPS) tools, wireless streaming video and other technologies are enabling new kinds of direct marketing to that captive audience.

For example, San Francisco-based Auto-wraps Inc. (, which sees vehicles as moving billboards, connects advertisers to the owners of those blank canvases on wheels. It recruits drivers willing to drive around in, say, a Head and Shoulders car, and pays them US$300 to $400 a month to wrap their entire car in a giant vinyl sticker.

Advertisers search Autowraps' database of potential drivers who have vehicles of a certain type or who are likely to be in a desired location to bear their messages. Autowraps contracts with drivers regarding the number of miles they must travel and locations in which they must park. Founder and President Daniel Shifrin says 60,000 people have signed up so far to promote such names as Breyers ice cream, Head and Shoulders, Lycos and Yahoo. The technological spice behind this reheated idea is the use of a GPS unit plugged into each ad-wrapped car's cigarette lighter. It pinpoints a car's location every four minutes, determining the exact latitude, longitude and speed of the moving billboard to ensure that drivers are not breaking laws and are otherwise complying with their contracts.

Besides the roadways, advertisers are using filling stations to promote their products. Automated as the world is, drivers still need to put gas in their tanks, and according to BillBoard Video President and CEO William Hall, 66 percent of Amer-icans buy gas three times every two weeks. BillBoard installs networked, wireless video units on gas pumps to display ads around nuggets of news, weather and sports. BillBoard's server updates advertisements every 15 minutes, and in doing so verifies that screens are working. Pilot Corp. and The Pantry are two companies already putting this technology to work in return for 20 percent of ad revenue.

Vert in Somerville, Mass., has its own plans for roadway marketing. Its service, still in development at press time, relies on a super bright video terminal attached to the roofs of taxicabs equipped with a GPS. A wireless modem will send a constant stream of localized video ads to the unit. Based on the GPS data, ads can switch languages when taxis cross neighborhood boundaries or appear only during certain times of day.

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