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Driven to Distraction

Can't afford that new car? How about slathering it with advertising?

By Dara Colwell

IT'S 9:10am and Autowraps.com's box of an office is bustling. Founder Daniel Shifrin, glued to his cell phone, motions for me to sit down. I'm 10 minutes late and mumble through the obligatory excuse. "Uh, parking was bad. Sorry." Considering that the company, which hopes to capitalize on car culture by paying drivers to wrap their cars in ads, is located in San Francisco's Mission District, where parking (or lack of it) causes severe migraines, my excuse is valid. I soon learn that staffers at Autowraps have the same problem--they seldom find parking in the neighborhood.

As Shifrin, a tall, Ray Liotta-esque guy, chats on the phone, I notice, scribbled on a whiteboard tacked to the wall, how many of my news-seeking brethren have already been intrigued by his concept: CNN, Time Magazine, The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer. "NBC is going to be here this afternoon," Shifrin pipes in, still cradling the phone, with the assured voice of a sports coach. "I'm meeting with Tom Brokaw."

What's bringing Autowraps so much media attention is not just its rolling billboard concept--it's the cash the company is proffering. Drivers receive $400 a month to have their cars wrapped in a vinyl adhesive, touting bright ads from companies such as Yahoo, Jiffy Lube, Kraft Foods and Proctor & Gamble. Stuck in traffic? Even better, as far as Shifrin and Co. are concerned. "The car is king of the outdoors," reads Autowraps' website. "Coupled with the worst traffic congestion levels in history [the car is] a natural medium for outdoor advertising."

Shifrin, a former executive headhunter, had his epiphany while stuck in traffic heading toward Pleasanton. He looked out and saw a solid sea of cars. "As a mass together, it looks pretty boring," he says. We're now seated in one of his vehicles, displaying "Luckysurf.com" in bold green and purple letters on its sides. "I saw a Pepsi truck [in the middle of it] and it stood out like crazy," he says. Thus, the idea for Autowraps.com was born.

Next up is driving around looking for cars. I'm ready to ask Shifrin my next question when we pass Dolores Park. "Hey, pull up over here," he directs our driver, Guillame, while scouting out the vista. "The Today Show is interested in interviewing me here," he says nonchalantly. But after 30 seconds, we pull away, to hit traffic downtown on Market Street, passing dozens of FedEx and UPS logos en route.

Shifrin has an apparent attraction for traffic, migrating to some of the world's hottest congestion spots. Raised in New York City, Shifrin went to college in Los Angeles, worked in Hong Kong and then moved to the Bay Area. "I've wasted hours of my life stuck in traffic," he says. So why not exploit what he terms a form of "outdoor real estate"?

As anyone in the Bay Area knows, real estate, like traffic, sits still. Why shouldn't it increase in value? During the past two decades, according to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, the number of cars on the road has increased at a steeper rate than any other demographic indicator--one-and-a-half times that of the total population. A typical household traveled 4,000 miles more in 1995 than it did in 1990, according to the same survey. Take a local sampling to drive the point home: according to CalTrans, 233,000 cars pass daily between the Mountain View and Shoreline Boulevard exits on Highway 101.

And the clamor for space in this media-saturated world has sent advertisements into stranger and stranger realms. There are ads in elevators, in urinals, at gas pumps and on ATM screens. And now, rolling down the street. "It's hard to give these messages a lot of thought," says Anthony Pratkanis, author of Age of Propaganda and a social psychology professor at UC-Santa Cruz. According to Pratkanis, we see, on average, 300 ads a day--roughly seven million in a lifetime.

Pratkanis' reaction to Autowraps' concept comes with a healthy warning. "I think it will be very successful--it's in an everyday environment and people are not going to feel like it's a persuasion attempt," he says. "But the other side of it is, are we a nation of personal billboards, promoting whatever anyone will pay?" In essence, he says, "they are buying your mouth."

Like most drivers who have signed on with Autowraps (30,000 are currently registered), Theresa Phillips of Sunnyvale responded to the fanfare and extra cash. Phillips' 19-year-old son gave her the idea because he was looking for a wrap to help pay for his new car. "I can be stopped at a light, and people walking down the street will turn and look. It's a really positive thing," she says.

Shifrin, too, sees his venture as positive. "I see this as a social business," he says. "It helps people by putting cash in their pockets."

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From the August 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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