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Your Ad Here, on My S.U.V.? And You’ll Pay?

Some companies pay millions to have their logos on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s racecar, but others prefer to pay Brian Katz $500 or more a month for space on his Ford Expedition.

Mr. Katz, 32, of Manhattan, is one of the tens of thousands of motorists who have signed up to have their cars and trucks wrapped in advertisements in exchange for a stipend up to $800 a month.

These offers are becoming so popular that car owners have been willing to limit where they shop and abide by a code of conduct while they are behind the wheel.

Even with the restrictions, a free car or a hefty subsidy is attractive to motorists like Mr. Katz. “One of my friends read something about someone giving away free cars for being a moving advertisement, which didn’t sound like anything that could actually happen,” Mr. Katz said, adding that it struck him as “a little shady.”

But he found the offer to be legitimate and has been paid handsomely to wrap his car for several companies, including Jamba Juice and Verizon Wireless.

True, he does not always feel like rolling down his window to answer strangers’ questions about, say, Verizon’s calling plans. “It can be a little intrusive sometimes, but that’s nothing in the grand scheme of things,” Mr. Katz said.

Vehicle wrapping started, by most accounts, in 1993, when PepsiCo bought the rights to paint six city buses in Seattle with its logo. Pepsi planned to put the buses in a paint shop for six weeks, but Louis Hoffman, general manager for a Seattle printing company called SuperGraphics, persuaded Pepsi to have the buses wrapped instead with a vinyl material made by 3M that could be applied in less than two days. (Now it takes just a few hours.)

3M, which remains the largest producer of the material, uses an adhesive similar to the one on its Post-it notes, enabling installers to place vinyl strips on a vehicle that do not stick until pressure is applied. The material is popular for wrapping racecars, helicopters, planes, boats and even buildings. Far from hurting the paint job, the wrap preserves it.

ARD Ventures, a venture capital firm, has studied the phenomenon of wrapped cars and estimates that motorists and pedestrians see a single vehicle’s advertising message as many as 70,000 times a day.

Mr. Katz was matched with his advertisers by FreeCar Media, an advertising agency in Los Angeles that claims to have a database of more than a million car owners who say they are open to wrapping their cars in ads for a fee, said Drew Livingston, president of the company.

The sponsor also pays as much as $5,000 a car for the wrap job. Generally, a car can qualify if it has enough surface area for a sizable ad and is no more than five years old.

“A company like Procter & Gamble will come to us and say, ‘We have a new and improved Tide, and our target is stay-at-home moms with two-plus children who live in these 20 markets,’ ” Mr. Livingston said. His company then finds drivers in that demographic. “We feel that when you can wrap a mom’s car and get it to her P.T.A. meeting or Curves gym, you’re getting the acceptance from her social circle.”

The company either gives its brand ambassadors free cars or, more often, pays them as much as $800 a month. In the last seven years, FreeCar Media has hired about 7,000 motorists, who are instructed to park outside whenever possible, refrain from smoking, littering or swearing in their vehicle, and to attend a monthly influencer event where they hand out samples or coupons. They also have to send reports frequently with photographs to show where their cars have been.

People whose cars were wrapped with ads for two Coca-Cola products — Planet Java, a bottled coffee, and Vault, an energy drink — were cautioned against sipping Pepsi products behind the wheel. Nor could they park at restaurant chains like KFC or Pizza Hut that serve Pepsi exclusively, Mr. Livingston said.

Another FreeCar participant, Jerome Harris, 22, was in his junior year at Temple University last year when he had his Nissan Altima wrapped for a promotion for Trolls, the endomorphic dolls with Don King hairdos. He earned $500 a month while his car was wrapped; in addition to driving around while on his best behavior, he was required to hand out Trolls pens to fellow students during finals week.

“We weren’t allowed to have alcohol in or around the car, or use profanity,” said Mr. Harris, who now lives in Brooklyn and is a few credits shy of a degree in advertising. “When you’re out, you’re supposed to be representing the brand.”

Some companies are taking mobile advertising into their own hands. Brian Morris, the owner of We Fix Ugly Pools, a pool repair and construction company in Phoenix, wrapped more than 30 vehicles in his fleet in ads for his company. He monitors how customers find him, and attributes more than $1 million in revenue over the last year to people seeing one of his trucks in a driveway.

Or in traffic.

“I tell my guys, ‘If you’re in rush hour, find the slowest lane and sit in it,’ ” Mr. Morris said. “I’ll pay for the time and gas. The people behind you can’t help but sit and stare.”

At Jobing.com, a job-search and recruiting company in Phoenix, all employees who have been with the company for more than a year are eligible to get their cars wrapped with ads for their employer, a perk that pays them $500 a month plus unlimited gas, even if they were to drive cross-country on vacation.

“It just seemed fair to us,” said Aaron Matos, the 35-year-old chief executive of Jobing.com. “This is a way to get a mobile billboard out on the street, so we were definitely willing to pay for that.”

Jobing.com workers must submit driving records and photographs of their cars, which can be no more than five years old. They also must enroll in a defensive-driving class. Nearly half its work force — 187 employees — participates, and Mr. Matos said that the workers with wrapped cars tended to stay with the company longer.

One employee got a warning from the boss after another motorist complained that he was speeding, and then drew another traffic complaint. “We still loved the employee. He just made a very bad decision,” said Mr. Matos, in explaining his decision to unwrap the car after the second complaint.

Mr. Matos’s own Volkswagen Touareg is wrapped, as is his wife’s Isuzu Rodeo. Would he drive the mobile billboard in, say, a funeral procession? “That hasn’t come up,” he said. “But if it were my funeral, I suppose everyone would have them.”


ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN, The New York Times. August 27, 2007

Copyright © 2007 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.