Billboards on a roll

Stuck in a San Francisco traffic jam, Daniel Shifrin stared at the tailgate of the pickup ahead of him. Again and again, he read the word “Toyota” as he inched along. At first it didn’t occur to the then 30-year-old manager of a financial printing company how easily the manufacturer insinuated itself in his mind — and how it would likely do the same crossing paths with thousands of others on the highway. Then it hit him.

“I said to myself, ‘That guy paid Toyota for the truck and to let him advertise for them,’” says Shifrin. “I thought it should be the other way around.”

That’s how he came up with, which pays people to have their cars transformed into rolling billboards., says Shifrin, matches drivers — by asking questions about their driving habits — with businesses that want their products promoted on cars.

“It’s working for our clients,” says Shifrin. “It’s increasing sales and creating brand awareness.”

A few similar businesses have sprung up. And thousands of drivers have signed up in hopes of earning extra cash. Just how effective this new form of promotion will be remains to be seen. But if you ask Shifrin — or his top competitor — it’s the way to go.

Revving up

Before Shifrin launched two years ago, he did an informal survey.

“I started calling people randomly in the phone book and asked if they would be willing to have their car wrapped in advertising for a fee,” recalls Shifrin. “And five out of 20 said yes.”

Since then, he says, 100,000 applicants have registered with And last year the company landed its first client:; five SUV owners on the West and East coasts had their cars wrapped with ads for three months.

The company has been growing at a pretty even clip ever since, says Shifrin. wrapped 500 cars last year (average pay for drivers is $275 monthly) with vinyl adhesive ads (which costs about $3,000 per car) and did $3 million in revenue. Shifrin says that this year is shaping up to be even better with deals under way with two television stations and an auto company.

Cars, he notes, “can go where no other media is allowed. Like Maine, they don’t allow outdoor advertising, and in Hawaii there is none.”

With about 300 million cars on the road, says Shifrin, the possibilities are immense. But only a few companies fight for the niche. In fact, Shifrin considers his only real competition., based in Los Angeles, formed last year when founder Keith Powers merged with

Powers says he came up with the idea for his business after he moved to San Francisco in 1999; he learned that the city had no outdoor advertising space available and that billboard costs were rising nationwide. Running ads on cars seemed to be a cheaper bet.

In addition to paying people to have their cars wrapped in ads, also provides some drivers with cars that it has wrapped. It has about 46 cars on U.S. roads; it recently began doing business in Japan, and plans to be in seven other countries next month. also is working the home of cars — Michigan.

Behind the wheel

Bonnie Wood, who lives just outside Flint, is the first Michigan driver for The 36-year-old traffic engineer filled out an application last fall. By December she agreed to swath her Chevy van in a Thom McAn ad for three months.

“It’s sort of neat to have a three-month contract,” says Wood. “If I’m not real hip on it, then it’s over.”

So far, having a green-coated van sporting the shoe company’s logo has been hassle free. To earn $350 a month Wood must wash the van every two weeks and, of course, drive it. But for Wood, driving is the easy part. She spends several hours a week hauling her three boys to and from hockey and soccer practices, and makes a 140-mile round-trip twice a week to Detroit’s Wayne State University where she is earning a master’s degree.

But it’s not only the 2,000 miles that Wood puts on her van each month that makes her the perfect mobile billboard for Thom McAn’s ad campaign, says Powers. It’s where she travels.

“When Thom McAn came to us, they said, ‘We are a sneaker company for children and families and people who frequent these types of stores, ’” explains Powers. “We looked at our application pool and selected people, and she worked out great.” and ask applicants dozens of questions about driving habits — such as do you drive on freeways or side streets to work —to find the right demographic for ad campaigns.

“If our client is looking for soccer moms, we can provide that information,” says Powers.

Providing e-businesses with personal information — particularly in this age of telemarketers — can be daunting. But both Powers and Shifrin maintain that their companies do not sell their applicant data bases.

“We protect the names of applicants by giving them ID numbers,” says Shifrin.

Driving for success

Tonya Irwin, Adweek Magazine’s Detroit bureau chief, calls these ads on wheels innovative.

“Consumers are not reading or watching TV like they once did,” says Irwin. Advertisers must reach people where “they work, live and play, and what better way to do that than the car since we spend so much time in the car?”

But should the public have ads invade another segment of our lives? Writer Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that advertisers pay us to pay attention to them (“Make the ad guys pay,” MT, Aug. 18-24, 1999). These companies are using a similar idea, and it seems to be paying off, according to Shifrin and Powers They are confident that their businesses will succeed, and say they welcome competition.

“It helps my business to expand the industry,” says Shifrin.

But he didn’t always think this way — last April Esquire ran a spoof by Ted Fishman called “There Are No Wheels” describing a new business concocted by a Stanford MBA grad called

“It was pretty funny actually,” says Shifrin. “We were trying to raise funds for autowraps, and I pitched the idea to an investor in Las Vegas. He pulled out the Esquire article and said, ‘I thought you said it was an original idea?’”

It not only frightened Shifrin that beat him to the punch, but the faux company reportedly had $15 million to get off the ground. Shifrin had a measly $1 million.

Shifrin says the article was a blessing in disguise. After it ran, Wired wrote about how Shifrin assumed it was true. And the Wired article drew a lot of traffic, including several prospective advertisers, to his Web site, says Shifrin.

In an interview with Wired, Fishman said, “I really wanted something that seemed an incredibly grandiose idea and people would have an easy (time) dismissing. I was wrong.”

Big time. According to Powers, who contacted Esquire after the article ran — and purchased the naming rights to for $25,000 — Fishman received thousands of e-mails in response to his story from people interested in signing up with his made-up company. (The e-mails were also included in’s deal with Esquire.)

“What the article did is validate our business model,” says Powers.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. Send e-mail to [email protected]

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