Mobile Billboards Herald Age of Drive-By Ads A spike in outdoor advertising, including mobile billboards carrying no cargo but a sales pitch, arrives as Americans have more options than ever to avoid TV and radio commercials.
NPR logo Mobile Billboards Herald Age of Drive-By Ads

Mobile Billboards Herald Age of Drive-By Ads

George Wilson's truck offers a rolling advertisement for Rice-A-Roni in the nation's capital. Tara Boyle, NPR hide caption

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Tara Boyle, NPR

George Wilson's truck offers a rolling advertisement for Rice-A-Roni in the nation's capital.

Tara Boyle, NPR

Streetblimp trucks like this one offer advertisers yet another angle in an increasingly competitive market. Tara Boyle, NPR hide caption

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Tara Boyle, NPR

George Wilson is used to attracting attention when he climbs into his truck and drives down the street. People point as he passes by. Some wave him down and ask for a photo.

"They say, 'Can I get a quick picture? I've never seen anything like this,'" said Wilson as he drove through downtown Washington, D.C., recently.

What sets Wilson and his truck apart from the hordes of other commercial vehicles in the nation's capital is his cargo: a 22-by-10 foot billboard for Rice-A-Roni. ("The San Francisco Treat: Now Built for Speed," reads the ad).

Wilson is a driver for New York-based Streetblimps, one of the nation's biggest mobile billboard companies. During a ten-hour shift, his job is to circle through the streets of the nation's capital, making sure that tourists and Washingtonians alike absorb the message he hauls behind him.

"You try to be where most people are so everybody can get a chance to see it," he said as he drove down Constitution Avenue past the White House.

Trucks like the one that Wilson drives, which carry no cargo except their billboards, are still something of a rarity in the United States. Experts say there are fewer than a thousand mobile billboards on the roads at any given time. But manufacturers have reported a recent rise in demand for the vehicles, and the industry is expected to continue to expand.

The spike in outdoor advertising, and mobile billboards in particular, comes as Americans have more options than ever to avoid TV and radio commercials. With TiVo and satellite radio growing in popularity, advertisers are increasingly heading outdoors to reach their target audiences, spending $5.8 billion on outdoor ads in 2004 alone. And they're no longer relying solely on highway signs to attract attention. Mobile billboards patrol the streets of both small cities and major metropolitan areas. "Street decals" are plastered on sidewalks in heavily trafficked areas. And after dark, high-rise buildings are lighting up with projection ads for sneakers, ice cream and luxury watches.

Critics say the advertisements are little more than eye pollution, particularly in a society already saturated with commercial messages. But these criticisms have done little to deter corporations, which in the last decade have nearly doubled the amount of money they spend on outdoor ads.

"It's all about what you can do to be a little more unexpected to catch people's attention," said Abbey Klaasen, a reporter with Advertising Age. "The consumer has more and more control than they've ever had before and outdoor [advertising] is trying to think of creative ways to break through that."

Even the old-fashioned sandwich board is being reintroduced. Moving-BoardUSA, a new company in New York City, sends teams of men and women into the streets of Manhattan with halogen-lit billboards strapped to their bodies.

"These guys are right in front of and behind you and you can't ignore it. It's really attention-grabbing," said Moving-BoardUSA Manager Adnan Hadzimesic.

Some observers see the flood of outdoor advertising as a sign of desperation on the part of advertisers.

"We used to be able to just go on television and literally cover 80 percent of the market," said John Verret, an advertising professor at Boston University. "The truth is I don't think advertisers know the best way in all cases to reach their target audience, so they’re trying everything."

But others say that one of the strengths of outdoor advertising is its ability to hone in on specific groups of people. Mobile billboards, for example, can drive through specific zip codes -- targeting the wealthy, college students, or other key audiences. Many mobile billboard companies use global positioning technology in their trucks, so that clients can know exactly where their ad was driven and how long it stayed in a specific spot.

Some clients just want to reach a large number of people. So mobile billboards often flock to busy neighborhoods or crowded highways. That strategy has raised the ire of some environmentalists, who say mobile billboards unnecessarily clog the roads.

"It really seems like they're wasting gas and adding to traffic congestion with no legitimate transportation purpose," said Eric Olson, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. Plus, he adds, the billboards themselves are "a blight on wheels."

In Madison, Wis., an environmental group known as Preserve Our Climate is urging City Council members to ban mobile billboards, and has launched a letter writing campaign to U.S. Cellular, a company that has used the billboard trucks.

"Especially in rush hour, there's just a huge amount of traffic. So we think we don't need more vehicles on our streets when they're not doing anything useful," said Preserve Our Climate member Stephen Burns.

The owners of mobile billboard companies counter that their trucks have a minimal impact on the environment -- and that they have as much right to the roads as anyone else.

"Everybody's got the right to use the highways and byways and we can go everywhere a car can go," said Jim McIntyre, the owner of McIntyre Outdoor Advertising, a mobile billboard firm near Nashville.

For many companies looking to grab a share of the lucrative outdoor advertising market, the biggest threat comes not from environmentalists, but from the competition. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America predicts that the industry could see double-digit growth over the next five years. That means even more firms will want to get in on the action -- and companies will face greater pressure to get creative and come up with new ways to reach elusive consumers.

"It's eye pollution to a lot of people," said Verret, the Boston University advertising professor. "But the way you get around that in the advertising business is to make it interesting."