The Common Good
January-February 2001

It's a Wrap

by Julie Polter | January-February 2001

You think ads are everywhere? You ain't seen nothing yet.

You've probably seen a full-body bus ad—that 30-foot-long dot.com logo on wheels discharging passengers. Now "autowrapping" companies will pay you to swath your personal car in a digitally printed vinyl ad. Thanks to cutting-edge technology and the apparently insatiable need for ad space, you too can drive your very own 4-door billboard.

In order to provide "crucial data and control" to clients [advertisers], the autowrap company will monitor your movements with a Global Positioning System device that plugs into your cigarette lighter. How handy! Two of the most happening trends of our toddling new century in one convenient package: High-tech surveillance and in-your-pores advertising.

Not to make this sound more sinister than it is. (Wouldn't you feel much more secure if someone were tracking your every move? No?) The GPS device is simply used by the company to make sure that you're rolling your glossy ad by as many souls as possible. To this end, a wrapped car and driver is expected to frequent high-traffic areas, park on the street and open lots, and drive 800 to 1,000 miles a month.

They don't install two-way radios to direct you away from "low-impact" or bad-for-the-advertisers'-image locations. But wouldn't it be fun if they did? "Why are you on a quiet side street? Get back in that traffic jam!" Or, "Drive out of the Wal-Mart parking lot right now and no one gets hurt."

SOME people see air pollution, road rage, clogged highways, and development run amok. Autowrap entrepreneurs see opportunity. As one company's site puts it, "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." Talk about taking lemons and making a nationally distributed sports drink! (Which, by the way, you could be promoting right now on your 4X4.)

Promotional vehicles of the past, like the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile or the Vlasic Picklemobile, had a giddy, circus-coming-to-town feel. Now we face the risk of being run off the road by an SUV dressed as a vodka bottle.

Where was autowrapping a few years ago, when I was in the backyard with Bondo and fine wire mesh, trying to save the terminally rusted body of my beloved old hatchback? A big vinyl pressure bandage would have solved all my problems.

But this is just wistful thinking. The wrap Web sites guarantee the vinyl won't damage intact paint jobs, but are less sanguine about dinged or rusty finishes. And while owners of all makes and models are welcome to apply, news reports note that generally these companies prefer late-model, distinctive vehicles—a snappy SUV or a new Volkswagen Bug. The autowrappers match drivers of a certain demographic and neighborhood with the product to be advertised. Presumably, upscale cars speak to upscale people—or at least people with more money to put down on product.

So with my used car and favored neighborhoods, an advertiser won't likely see my wheels as the billboard of their dreams. But when thrift stores and tattoo parlors start promoting themselves on cars, I might have a chance. One can hope—my current car is showing rust, and I've misplaced my Bondo.

Julie Polter is associate editor of Sojourners.

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