Tuesday, July 18, 2000

World full of human billboards




By LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        How did so many of us become human billboards? Our pocket change, our cars, even our underwear are selling something.

        For somebody else.

        Worse, we're cheap.

        Carl Lindner III's insurance company agreed to pay the Reds $75 million for the rights to Great American Ball Park. Delta Air Lines will spend $30 million to put its name on Cincinnati's convention center. A Houston furniture store coughed up $500,000 for the embarrassingly direct, but blessedly short-lived Gallery Furniture.com Stakes at Turfway.

        But corporations pay squat to use us as sandwich boards.

        How did this start? With the little Izod alligator? Did it escalate when the Ralph Lauren polo pony made a new fashion statement? (The statement was: “My knit shirt cost even more than the one with the alligator on it.”)

        In no time at all, men began wearing Calvin Klein's name on their underpants and Tommy Hilfiger's on their shirts. Gloria Vanderbilt started signing women's jeans. Monica's beret was by DKNY, her dress by Gap.

Mickey the huckster
        Curiously, putting your own monogram on your sweater is considered showy. Meanwhile, we let a stranger put his name on our shoes. On our hats. On our shirts. Free of charge.

        It is not enough that we spend our money traveling to exotic places, such as Minnesota, “Home of the Spam Cook-Off.” We have to come back with T-shirts that say so.

        Just because you spent your life savings for a week at Disney World doesn't mean Mickey will let you off with a simple thank you. He wants you to spread the word for him, putting his picture on everything. Socks. Rain gear. Earrings.

        And we let him.

        Now the very change in our pockets has been commercialized, and I expect to eventually walk around with my purse full of travel information, shilling for Ohio. Three of the four proposed designs for Ohio's state quarter brag about our connection with the Wright Brothers.

        Some officials say this will contribute to tourism. That's what they said when they put “Birthplace of Aviation” on our license plates. I'm not sure people will understand that this means they should drop their plans to go to the beach and vacation instead in Dayton at the brothers' restored bicycle shop.

        Perhaps the message should be more direct. And bigger.

Motorized commercial
        A company in California — where else? — has come up with an idea to pay us to sell the advertising rights to our cars. Myfreecar.com will “help you earn money while you drive.” They cover the car with a printed vinyl wrap, flogging everything from juice to ice cream.

        A cute little VW Beetle is pictured, but I guess they would also consider my bloated old station wagon. In fact, they should pay a premium. They'd have more space to rhapsodize about their product. My job, as I understand it, would be to drive all over the place and keep the car clean enough that passers-by can read the message.

        Campaigns usually last between three and six months, and the fees vary. Some companies offer the free use of an ad-wrapped car and others pay up to $400 a month.

        Considering a new career? May I suggest the exciting world of advertising. If you're going to do it anyway, you may as well get paid.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE