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Forget the information superhighway the newest advertising medium is barreling down the San Diego Freeway blaring country music and dodging Smokey.

It was bound to happen in a city where seemingly every square inch of reality has been sold to marketers. The sides of buildings are billboards, beach kiosks are plastered with movie posters, the skies are buzzing with planes towing ad banners or writing in vapor, and even city buses are commercials on wheels.

But trucks? Most 18-wheelers are still as blank as a soap starlet’s stare.

Enter Al Martin, who started United Mobile Billboards LLC a few months ago with a six-employee sales force headquartered on the Miracle Mile and sales offices in Minnesota and Oregon. The company is a subsidiary of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based debt-consolidation firm National Budget Planners, which provided all the start-up funding.

Martin says he already has agreements with more than 3,000 trucking firms, with fleets located all over the country, to carry his billboards.

The concept works like this: Advertisers pay a fee ranging from $2,375 to $4,370 per month on a three-month contract, in exchange for which they get a vinyl billboard mounted on both sides of a commercial truck. The boards range in size from 5 feet by 12 feet to 8.5 feet by 53 feet.

The fees are split between the trucking companies, the sign printers and United Mobile Billboards.

A six-month contract for a truck sign might cost around $24,000, Martin said, compared with around $60,000 for a bus wraparound or a stationary billboard on the Westside.

“There’s advertising everywhere. If you play golf, look at the bottom of the cup when you take your ball out there’s advertising there. When you go to a urinal in a restaurant, look up there’s advertising there,” Martin said. “Putting ads on the sides of trucks was an absolutely overwhelming idea, it makes so much sense.”

That it might, but it’s never worked very well before. Advertisers are not courageous souls; few marketing managers want to be the first to experiment with a brand new medium.

Skip Jones, whose Chico-based Medialease Out of Home Media Network represents billboard companies selling space to advertisers, said Martin is only the latest in a string of entrepreneurs looking to start an advertising business using trucks as signs. None so far has been a success.

The problem, Jones said, is that it’s nearly impossible to track the audience for a truck billboard. Some days, trucks won’t be on the road at all, but sitting in some garage being serviced or loaded. While buses have regular routes every day, and therefore the number of people seeing the bus can be estimated, trucks go to different places along different routes all the time. Who is the audience for a truck billboard, and how big is it?

Martin admits he’s never worked in outdoor advertising or any kind of advertising something Jones says is a major liability.

“I’ve never heard of this guy before, and neither has anybody else in the industry,” Jones said. “(Truck-side advertising) could work, but somebody’s got to invest in hiring the right people and making the right sales presentations first.”

The great outdoors

While we’re on the subject of outdoor advertising, another independent L.A. billboard company was quietly sold in late December, continuing a massive consolidation.

But this sale was a little different because it didn’t involve an industry giant snatching up another collection of boards in the outdoor advertising capital of the nation. That’s because Sunset Outdoor’s 400 local signs are of the ill-respected eight-sheet variety.

Eight-sheets are 6-foot-by-12-foot billboards with a reputation as an inner-city advertising medium, because they tend to be concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. Nonetheless, Sunset’s buyer, La Mirada-based Vista Metropolitan Outdoor Media, has developed a major collection of eight-sheets in L.A. and New York that include highly desirable neighborhoods on the Westside.

The lack of respect accorded eight-sheets was demonstrated in the sale of Vista itself in August. The last three years have seen a tremendous consolidation in the outdoor advertising business; Outdoor Systems Inc. and Eller Media Co. have become dominant players in L.A. and nationwide after swallowing up such industry giants as Gannett Co.’s outdoor division and Patrick Media Group.

Because of the enormous sums paid for these companies, Vista’s owner expected to fetch up to $40 million for his company when he put it on the market in October 1996. But apparently none of the giants even put in a bid for Vista, which operated 5,882 boards in Southern California and 1,673 in New York before acquiring Sunset.

Instead, Vista was acquired in a management buyout led by its president, Glenn Emanuel, for a price “in the mid-20 millions,” Emanuel said.

Vista is in the unusual position of being one of the only mid-sized, independent billboard operators left. And Emanuel says he has the financial backing to allow Vista to keep getting bigger while remaining independent.

“We have a pretty aggressive acquisition plan,” Emanuel said. “Sunset was hopefully just the beginning of it.”

Belding shenanigans

Two years after its call-for-entries campaign for the L.A. Ad Club’s Belding Awards offended some members of the local ad community, TBWA Chiat/Day Inc. is apparently out to prove that it’s uncowed by controversy.

A full-page Belding ad from the agency in the Jan. 5 issue of Adweek pictures two men with their arms around each other, walking down the beach.

“Now that my boyfriend sold-out, we’ve spent every weekend together,” reads the copy.

The ad is part of a tongue-in-cheek campaign playing off the idea that if you win a Belding, you will be in such demand that you’ll be able to sell out and make a pile.

But why two men? Is the agency trying to imply that creative types are gay? Is it trying to attract hate mail from Southern Baptists?

Actually, it’s just trying to attract attention and going for a laugh although most people seem a bit puzzled when shown this particular ad.

“Nobody’s tried to poison my dog yet,” said art director Scott MacGregor, when asked about reactions to the ad he created with copywriter Michael McKay. “It was just a very ’90s way of dealing with it. You know, Ellen has come out.”

News Editor Dan Turner writes a weekly marketing column for the Los Angeles Business Journal.

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