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No space is sacred when it comes to alternative advertising

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000

So, you wanna piece of me?

For just $50 a month, your advertising slogan can be displayed across my forehead on that cute photo just to the right.

Just kidding. But if you thought advertising messages already appear everywhere imaginable, look again. Creative -- maybe too creative -- folks are rolling out visual ads in unusual places at a startling pace.

Why the sudden rush to find new, alternative ad locations? Fresh impact.

The late 1990s' explosion of dot-com companies, all clamoring for attention at the same time, pushed the advertising world to experiment. And strong demand for advertising has pushed up the price of mainstream ads, encouraging the search for offbeat outlets.

Experts estimate the average American views a brain-numbing 3,000 ad messages a day from television, newspapers and magazines, billboards, direct mail, Internet banners and other traditional sources. That's the ad-assault equivalent of saturation bombing.

But what if you unexpectedly saw an ad on, say, a piece of fresh fruit?

That's where the California-based Internet search engine company Ask Jeeves Inc. chose to run ads this year for its Web site. Ask Jeeves placed small stickers on 15-million apples, 60-million oranges and 100-million bananas in grocery stores nationwide. Each sticker, adorned with Jeeves the butler, asks one of several questions ("What are some great apple snacks for kids?"), then refers the fruit reader for an answer online at (Among the answers offered: Dip slices in honey or roll them in coconut.)

Do the fruit stickers catch people's attention? Do they cut through the everyday ad clutter? Ask Jeeves hopes so.

The company even adopted a name for such alternative-style advertising: "Wild media."

Did Ask Jeeves go over the line? Are we so overwhelmed with ads that we've lost any communal peace of mind? One citizens advocacy group, Commercial Alert, warns "ad creep" is overwhelming the country.

Advertising, group director Gary Ruskin says, "is attempting to lay claim to our every waking moment and to every inch of public space."

That's a popular argument. One that's become increasingly effective in restricting and even banning outdoor billboards in certain parts of this country.

But let's get real. Advertising is a vital part of how this country's economy (and presidential election) operates, how we communicate with each other and how we can all afford to pay for a range of services (from TV to radio to a daily newspaper that still costs 25 cents).

Truth is, they're just starting to scratch the surface of alternative advertising.

Alone, the Ask Jeeves fruit campaign is a cute novelty. But more and more ads are cropping up in innovative, bizarre and sometimes controversial places.

On St. Pete Beach, a 1-year-old business called Sea Signs pulls billboard-size signs behind boats along busy Florida coastlines. At first, Sea Signs owner Mark Maksimowicz ran into a backlash from waterfront residents and some municipalities upset by his floating commercials.

Then he started to run only public service ads, such as "Designate a Skipper" and responsible boating banners paid for by the local beer distributor for Anheuser-Busch. That strategy seems to have calmed his critics and spurred Maksimowicz, 41, to expand and search for a business partner. In January, he plans to run offshore ads promoting manatee safety.

Another company's floating ad campaign off New York City did not fare as well. This summer, Web site, a Boston construction-equipment rental business, hired the tugboat Gunny to tow Dirtpile's 72-foot ad up and down the Hudson River. In Manhattan, outraged city regulators moved to shut down the floating ad.

(Outraged? From a city that displays 10-story ads of skimpy underwear in Times Square?)

Another growing focus of mobile advertising is the car.

New York, San Francisco and Boston are three cities under pressure to allow mobile billboards to be pulled around their streets behind trucks. Two billboard companies challenged New York's ban, saying it violates their constitutional right to free speech. Similar disputes are occurring in the other cities. of San Francisco is one of several companies that pays individuals as much as a few hundred dollars each month to drive their own car that has been "wrapped" in a big, bright vinyl sheath. Drivers in a dozen markets, including the Tampa Bay area, were chosen based on where and how much they drive to assure the client's ad reaches enough of an audience.

"Cars," says, "are the last available form of outdoor real estate left."

A Tampa business called Adcaps this year began marketing ads that are readable even though they are on the hubcaps of moving vehicles. A few area businesses such as Gordon Chevrolet are using the hubcap ads. A locksmith in Modesto, Calif., is a client. And Adcaps is lobbying Chicago, which had banned ads from city taxis, to consider hubcap ads.

Adcaps just got a big break in Las Vegas, where the hubcap ads will appear on several hundred taxis. The deal was signed with outdoor advertising giant Eller Media, which places its rooftop ad panels on 15,000 taxis nationally.

In markets such as Las Vegas, there's a waiting line of advertisers looking for a place to display their message, says Tampa's Harris Romaner, president of Adcaps parent company, Visual Impact Media. Ads on hubcaps don't pollute or take up extra space, he says, unlike some other advertising approaches.

"So many people are thinking how else to get their message out," Romaner says. "And that's not all for the good."

Some ad ideas are out of this world.

RadioShack Corp. of Texas is teaming up with a small, Virginia-based space exploration start-up to put a robotic rover on the moon in 2003 sporting the RadioShack logo.

Companies are eager to put their message anywhere: from video screens on elevators, gas pumps and bus shelters to floor panels, hotel room keys, ATM receipts and chalk ads on sidewalks or sculpted sand on the beach. Even tattoos of corporate logos.

Fruit stickers are not the only offbeat ads for Ask Jeeves. At the 1999 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the company hosted a float. At this year's parade, televised nationwide, Ask Jeeves upgraded to a full-size balloon of Jeeves, the company butler.

"The parade's become one of most cost-effective things we can do," Ask Jeeves spokeswoman Abby Berens says.

So, with so many ever-changing advertising options, you still wanna piece of me?

What if I offered a reduced price of 50 cents a month?

Nah. Your ad would go a lot further stuck on a bunch of bananas.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at (727) 893-8405 or

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