“If it is done correctly people don't only see these cars,” notes Lyons, “they actually stop and stare and talk about it later. On your trip to work you may pass a hundred posters. But if you see a wrapped car I'll wager that will be what you remember. Yes, it gets noticed because it is novel, but without a doubt it is an advertising medium that is here to stay.”
Edie Michelson, who runs Ads2Go in St. Louis, Missouri, agrees. “Advertisers have to fight for eyes and ears and a morsel of your time. Here there is no battle. Viewers want to read the signs. Sometimes in a parking lot people will actually walk out of their way to read what is on a car.”
Instead of wrapping cars in vinyl, Michelson simply asks drivers to stick magnetic signs on their cars as they drive around. “Business owners know that messages on vehicles are a good way of communicating with people. Now small businesses no longer have to have a fleet of their own—I provide the fleet and drivers!”
The business model for car sponsorship is simple. Agencies like AdsOnCars or Ads2Go have built up a database of potential drivers, recruited via word of mouth or from having seen sponsored cars on the road. They collect information about the car, the individual's driving patterns and other personal data, like whether they have children for instance. The amount of information available gives advertisers a good idea of the sorts of drivers available.
This is where it gets really cunning: advertisers can choose drivers that match their target audience. They can choose people who fit with their brand. “The driver is also the consumer,” says Lyons. “The driver is happy with the brand and the brand is happy with the driver. And the driver becomes a brand ambassador.”
Does Carol Ann Kneznekoff, one of Michelson's drivers, feel like an ambassador? “I was a little embarrassed at first to have my car covered in signs. Everyone was looking at me as I drove—I thought I must look really good until I realized they were staring at the signs. But I was comfortable with the companies I was advertising. One was a hot dog place, which we use as a family, and I was happy to answer people's questions about it when they asked. People had lots of questions about the ads.”
“This kind of advertising brings the brand closer to consumers in a new way,” says Lyons. “There is a direct relationship established between the brand and the consumer. The brand is physically taken to places where it is not normally seen, like the supermarket or the gym. But the brand is also getting the endorsement of the consumer who drives the car. That's probably the best sort of promotion a brand could want among the driver's like-minded friends, family and colleagues.”
Michelson says that one of her clients is a dry cleaning company. They targeted drivers who play sports and would have to wash dirty kit. The car would sit in the parking lot and be seen by all the other sports people too.
Naturally, there is an element of risk. What happens when the driver behaves “off brand”? After all, drivers don't go through a rigorous brand training and awareness workshop. “We have discussed this with various clients,” Lyons explains. “The process we follow helps to eliminate the risk. All the people on our database have never been banned or caught drunk driving and they all have less than six points on their license. The lifestyle information we have also helps clients to target the right kind of person. We can't be hundred percent sure of what the driver is doing, but we do have the facility to remove the ad at any point and we do monthly checks too.” AdsOnCars also offers GPS tracking of vehicles.
“Some of this is about having faith in the consumer, but it is no different really than Vodafone sponsoring Manchester United and having their name on all the shirts worn by fans. They have no controls about the behavior of people who wear the shirts but they still manage to get the message out,” says Lyons.
“My philosophy is that a positive set up creates a positive result,” adds Michelson. “If you ask someone to do what they always do then they will do it. If they normally go to work, do errands and go home in their car, and you ask them to do it with signs, then they will do it. Of course, I also have techniques, like spot checks, to manage control so that advertisers can be confident that the right message is getting through, but I know people will drive with the signs on anyway. After all, that's what they've said they want to do.”
It all seems so easy. Even Kneznekoff overcame her initial embarrassment. “It has been much easier than I thought it would be. I soon forgot the signs were there and got on with my regular driving. It's the easiest money I've ever made!”
But she doesn't think our roads will ever become a moving pastiche of advertising traffic. “I'm not sure if most people feel comfortable with advertising on their cars. Some people thought it was tacky and most people don't want attention brought on themselves. I'm an uncool Mum already, so adding a few signs to my car didn't make much difference!”
Brand owners are evidently hoping more uncool or attention-seeking drivers will want to get out there and earn some easy cash just by driving around.