2:52pm

Sat July 26, 2014
Business

This Traffic Backup Brought To You By ...

With the advent of the "sharing economy" and successful peer-to-peer ventures like Airbnb and RelayRides, it is now possible for millions to turn a quick buck by renting out underused assets like a spare guest room or a even a dog that needs walking.

But many of us who endure long car rides to work each day have another asset that we may have been too frazzled, bored or fatigued to appreciate — even though it trails us almost everywhere we go: our car's bumper.

Traffic Problems

It may be painful but think about it: The average commuter in large, congested American cities like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York spends the equivalent of 2.5 days stuck in traffic each year. It's even worse in other parts of the world: Commuters in London spend three days (72 hours) in traffic annually, and their counterparts in Brussels (83 hours) and Antwerp (77 hours) endure the worst congestion on the planet.

That's a lot of time staring at the bumper in front of you. And, let's face it, unless you're stuck behind that dirty Subaru that has more stickers plastered to it than miles left on it, there's usually not much to look at.

Now consider another traffic problem: Brands are struggling to get their message out across a variety of media. It's getting ever harder to find places to put ads that people will not close (pop-ups), ignore (magazines, banner ads), circumvent (television) or toss (direct mail). The search for a captive audience has even led some entrepreneurs to follow consumers into the toilet.

Online advertising has had a particularly tough time. The average click-through rate for online display ads, for example, is around 0.1 percent. Put another way, you are more likely to survive a plane crash or give birth to twins than click on a banner ad.

Is it possible that advertisers and brand managers have simply been focused on the wrong kind of traffic? And by doing so, they've been giving commuters a free ride — when what they ought to be giving them is a subsidized one.

Letting It Ride

Advertisers have not always been oblivious to drivers. For example, they quickly learned that the explosion in car ownership in the U.S. in the 1920s and '30s — and the increasing amount of time that Americans were spending on the road — meant that drivers could, as history writer Diarmuid Jeffreys puts it, "be a (literally) sitting target for bold, brash ads." Thus the roadside billboard was born.

It was not long before cars themselves became the ad canvas. In 1970, when the federal government banned tobacco advertising on television, R.J. Reynolds and other big tobacco companies were forced to look for new ways to keep their brands in the public eye. One of the most profitable places they discovered: NASCAR stock cars.

Big Tobacco launched the Winston Cup series, and other companies soon followed suit, placing their advertisements all over cars, tracks, drivers and pit crews. Today NASCAR attracts more Fortune 500 companies as advertisers than any other sport.

Mass transit is also a well-adorned ad landscape: From wrap advertising on commercial vehicles, taxis and buses to the insides of subway cars and tunnels, advertisers have already started colonizing the viewing space of millions of commuters. So much so that many municipalities have banned mobile billboards — those trucks that drive around carrying large advertisements on their trailers.

Yet the vast majority of vehicles remain ad-free despite the tremendous incentives for both advertisers and drivers to cash in.

Sponsored Content

By placing advertisements on car bumpers, companies and brand managers not only gain access to prime, undeveloped ad space, they also grow brand loyalty by providing thousands of drivers with a sponsored commute.

Whether it's for gas money or a portion of your next car payment, wouldn't you consider renting out your bumper? In India, one enterprising firm recently offered to pay its drivers' monthly car payments in return for putting up vinyl ads on car exteriors — and received more takers than it could handle.

For those worried about pimping their vehicles to corporate sponsors, a few minutes on Facebook should disabuse you of that concern. With millions of people already "friends" or "fans" of everything from Jell-O Pudding Pops to Spam, is anyone really going to care if your bumper pitches Netflix or Target?

The logistics of the bumper ad should also not pose a challenge. In an era of GPS and self-driving cars, it should be a snap to create a bumper messaging board that is digitized, connected to the driver's smartphone and whose movements can be tracked and geo-coordinated to estimate the number of "impressions" a bumper generates.

Follow Me (Literally)

Of course, the bumper messaging board, like the bumper sticker, has another potential use, and source of appeal: self-expression. Think of it as Twitter meets vanity plates, and it wouldn't have to be limited to commercial expression.

Tired of being defined by the same political slogan or "Coexist" sticker you've had emblazoned on your car's rear end since 2004? Want to say something fresh, funny or less conventional with your bumper space? Want to grow your followers even while you're parked on the freeway? Perhaps recommend a favorite restaurant, TV show or local business?

The possibilities abound. As Mark Twain once said, "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising." If advertisers can figure out how to rent some real estate on your rear bumper, that small thing might just turn out to be your wallet.

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