Thursday, Aug. 30, 2001 | 8:34 a.m.
"Oh, my God, does IHOP deliver now?"
Charles Oswald says that's one of many reactions he has had since encasing his 2000 Ford Explorer in the logos of the popular pancake restaurant four months ago.
"It definitely attracts attention," Oswald said.
Driving a mobile billboard is not for the shy. Once a person gets behind the wheel of a vehicle embossed with advertising messages, he or she becomes a focus of attention.
But for $300 a month, Oswald says he can stand the stares.
That's how much Freecarmedia.com, a Los Angeles company, pays the 29-year-old blackjack dealer for the use of the exterior surface of his vehicle.
The 2-year-old company applied the vinyl-wrap advertising to Oswald's sport utility vehicle in April under a three-month contract, which recently was extended an additional three months. The wrap can be removed and is guaranteed against damage to the vehicle.
"The only heckling I've had has been from my friends," Oswald said, adding, "It's nice to have the extra income. I have a house payment and some bills."
But debt wasn't the reason Oswald decided to drive into the limelight.
"I just thought, if somebody wants to pay me to do it, why not?" Oswald said. "I wouldn't do it with a Tampax ad, though. That would make me feel uncomfortable."
He needn't worry about that.
Freecarmedia.com has contracts with three local entities to provide privately owned vehicles for ad space.
Thom McAn Shoes has two or three car ads. The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety has a couple. IHOP has five.
Business is hopping
"We signed up on a three-month trial basis and we recently renewed for another three months, so we are pleased," IHOP spokesman Patrick Lenow, of Los Angeles, said.
He said Las Vegas is the only area where mobile advertising is being used by IHOP, but after the program is analyzed it may be expanded to other areas.
"Franchisees in Las Vegas were looking for something different to break through and they thought this was a unique marketing tool," Lenow said. Oswald, a Milwaukee native who has lived in Las Vegas since 1994, says he doesn't do any extra driving.
"Basically, I just drive to and from work," he said. 'They don't ask you to do any extra driving." Oswald lives in Summerlin and works at the Hard Rock Hotel, which means he crosses the Strip at least twice a day a good commute to achieve a high number of exposures to potential customers.
"I probably drive about 30 miles a day. I was surprised the company contacted me," Oswald said.
He said there aren't a lot of requirements, although most of the vehicles chosen by Freecarmedia.com seem to be larger ones, such as SUVs.
"One rule is that you can't let the car sit for more than 48 hours and you have to wash it every two weeks," he said.
Potential candidates must have a clean driving record as well as a clean car and a clean credit report.
"They don't want to take a chance on you having your car repossessed," Oswald said.
Oswald is single so he didn't have to ask permission from a wife to turn his car into an oddity.
However, Wayne Wedlow, 37, has a wife and four children.
"There is an adjustment period," Wedlow, a management analyst, said.
He said his wife, Tuala, likes it now, though.
"It's gotten her a lot of attention," Wedlow said.
Their children -- ages 6, 10, 11 and 14 -- took a little longer to get accustomed to being stared at wherever they went in the family car, a 1999 Dodge Durango.
"Now they expect it," Wedlow said.
The message that covers Wedlow's Durango is sponsored by the Nevada Motor Vehicle and Public Safety Department.
"Basically, the message is 'Why risk it? Buckle up,' and it also encourages people not to drink and drive," Wedlow said.
He said he gets a lot of surprised, and sometimes shocked, looks.
"It's an attention getter," he said. "Sitting at a red light, I get a lot of thumbs up signs. (People) say a lot of different things, mostly positive."
Wedlow, a native of Las Vegas, learned about the program from a newspaper article. He said that since he drives 60-100 miles a day, he might be a candidate for Freecarmedia.com.
"I live in the area of Rancho (Drive) and Lake Mead (Boulevard) and I work in Green Valley," he said.
He is paid $300 per month to do nothing more than what he was already doing.
"It's nice to have a little extra cash, to earn extra money without taking away from time with the family," he said.
Drew Livingston, vice president of operations for Freecarmedia.com, said since company founder Lawrence Butler came up with the idea two years ago the firm has gone international.
Other companies do similar advertising, but Livingston says with 400,000 potential drivers in its data base, Freecarmedia.com is the largest.
Livingston said nationwide the company has 36 clients, including 3M, IHOP and Thom McAn. It has between 500 and 650 autos on the road in 20 cities.
Drivers are paid $300-$400 per month during the length of their contract. Or, they may instead qualify for the use of a new car for a period of two years.
Livingston said if an advertising client signs a contract for a minimum of a year, his company will put the vinyl wrap on a new car and assign the car to a driver. The driver may return the car to the company at the end of two years, or buy or lease the car.
Most of the vinyl-wrapped vehicles are owned by individuals.
Livingston said the large database of drivers allows the company to match up the needs of the advertisers with specific demographics the advertisers want to reach.
"For example, Pringles is one of our most recent clients," he said. "In their ad campaign, they were targeting 18- to 35-year-olds living in the Atlanta area who drive about 1,000 miles a month and make X-amount of dollars."
Livingston said his company went to its database and chose the drivers that best fit the profile.
He said once they are chosen, drivers become "brand ambassadors."
"They are educated on the product and they use the product so when someone stops them and asks questions, they are advocates," Livingston said. "The IHOP drivers will know about all the IHOPs. Thom McAn Shoes drivers can tell you were to go get a pair of shoes."
The thing that makes mobile advertising idea work is satellite tracking, or Global Positioning System (GPS). The system is installed in the cars at the same time they are wrapped.
Satellites track the exact location and speed of participating vehicles.
"One of the issues we faced when we started the company was how we were going to measure accountability for our client," Livingston said. "If an ad is on a billboard, the advertiser can tell about how many people see it in a month.
"We came up with global positioning, so every 15 minutes we can tell where the car is, at what intersection, if it is parked or moving, what's its longitude and latitude. We overlay that with National Highway Traffic Council data, which tells us how many cars and people are on the street in, say, New York City.
"Also, each city has pedestrian counts as well. We know roughly how many people were on the Strip in Las Vegas at any given time. We take a compilation of all the numbers and come up within a couple of thousand impressions of how many see the sign (on the cars) every day."
The biggest markets for the advertising are Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit.
He said the client dictates the type of vehicles and drivers used in any given marketing campaign.
"We have wrapped Porsches," he said.
Daniel Shifrin, 32, started Autowraps.com about two years ago in San Francisco.
He claims to be the first to come up with the idea of mobile advertising, which was quickly adopted by others.
"I was in a bad traffic jam and I looked to my right and saw this Pepsi truck. I couldn't take my eyes off of it. Then I looked in front of me and saw this Toyota logo on a car in front of me," Shifrin said.
The idea to charge advertisers to put their messages on privately owned vehicles clicked.
"I started it and it got copied like crazy," Shifrin said.
Autowraps.com has a driver database of 175,000. Its clients include such corporations as Coca-Cola, Kraft and Smuckers.
Convincing businesses to put their ads on cars has been difficult.
"The advertising industry should be creative, but conventional wisdom has hold of it," Shifrin said.
But business is beginning to pick up. He has similar programs in the United Kingdom and is expanding to Mexico in the near future. The company did a promotion last year at the CES in Las Vegas.
Shifrin said mobile advertising is better than stationary advertising because "after a person sees a billboard twice, he doesn't pay attention to it."
Although Shifrin is sold on the idea of advertising on private vehicles, he doesn't do it with his own car.
"You have to be a special kind of person to have your car wrapped," he said.