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In this business, gridlock's good

Mobile billboards are gaining a presence on busy Tampa Bay roads.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published May 24, 2007


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A few pedestrians stare so much they feel obliged to wave. Others whip out their cell phone cameras. At stoplights some motorists don't pull up even with the bright lime vehicle just so the driver can watch the ads scroll up every eight seconds.

The latest forms of mobile billboards are popping up on Tampa Bay area streets. And like many forms of outdoor ads these days, they rely on motion for visual stopping power on scheduled routes in rush hour traffic.

Admobile Tampa Bay trucks have triangular sign boards that rotate three ads. Rivals such as Bay Area Billboards and VersatileAds have newer versions plastered with three to 10 paper message boards that scroll up and down like slow-motion window shades through a roll of up to 10 messages.

"Actually, we like traffic jams because people spend more time looking, " joked Chuck Bonura, president of VersatileAds, a St. Petersburg company with two green trucks running three and four hour routes daily on both sides of Tampa Bay.

At about $600 a month for one side to $1, 500 for all three, it's a relatively cheap form of advertising. But exposure to about 12, 000 vehicles on a typical route is small compared with rival media. And eight seconds means messages must be less than eight to 10 words to be remembered.

After five months, Bonura says it's still a "difficult sale" for advertisers, but he's broken even as ad agencies get used to the idea.

"Fortunately, I based my plan on $3-a-gallon gas, " he said.

It's part of a bigger trend: adding motion to outdoor ads thanks to the shrinking cost of digital message boards. The first outdoor digital billboards have the look of a 48-foot-wide TV picture that dissolves to a different ad every eight seconds, but are not programmed to show images that move. Many businesses and schools, meanwhile, put digital LED message boards by the road that scroll through written messages, dancing letters and animated figures in color. While digital billboards are regulated, most towns in the Tampa Bay area permit LED message boards if they promote an onsite business.

Studies have shown that moving images attract twice the attention of motorists as static ones.

One scrolling mobile billboard maker fueling the trend is LimeLite Advertising. The Miami firm sells a rig fabricated in China that fits over a GMC or Isuzu truck chassis for $60, 000 to $80, 000. LimeLite claims 198 are on the road domestically and 70 more on order.

"Our waiting list is down to 60 to 90 days, " said Robert Soto, president of the LimeLite.

A Kodak printer cranks out new ads in an hour which can be installed in five minutes. A built-in GPS system enables advertisers to verify where their ads are.

The trucks also have even been used as parade floats. GoMobile, a Seattle mobile ad vehicle maker, even removed the message boards and transformed the glassed-in empty truck interior into a mobile living room that tooled around town promoting IKEA Furniture.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com" or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified May 23, 2007, 23:36:01]


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