Some call illuminated ads on rear windows a safety hazardby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Advertisers are always finding new places to stick their ads - in bathrooms, on gas pump handles, on the DVDs we rent.
A Twin Cites firm is looking to put ads --full-color, illuminated ads-- some place you'd not expect them but likely won't miss. In the rear windows of commuters' vans, SUVs and trucks.
Pat Seger of Minneapolis spotted one of the signs recently. She was cruising along Interstate 35W when she noticed a sign for Toyotas on the back of the vehicle in front of her.
"And then all of a sudden, I looked up and it had changed," she said. "It said something else. I was like 'what?'" Seger said.
She followed the vehicle for a while.
"And the screen changed again," she said. "I found myself staring at the screen waiting to see what came up next. It was really distracting. I had to get into the other lane because I found myself kind of watching the car instead the traffic."
The sign wasn't as bright as those big digital billboards along major highways. But it was bright enough to be seen on a sunny day. It was in color and it changed steadily. A powerful projector shot the images onto a thin screen on the vehicle's rear window.
Seger thinks such snazzy signs are a safety hazard, distracting drivers when their attention should be focused on traffic, not some advertiser's sales pitch.
"When it's right in front of you, it's pretty hard to ignore, which is the idea for advertisers. But in terms of safety, I don't think it works very well," Seger said.
The owner of Rear Window Media, the company behind the signs, disagrees.
"This is nothing more than a bumper sticker that is dynamic," says Jessica Netter, president of Rear Window.
Netter, a veteran of the marketing business, started Rear Window Media in 2008. She saw all the attention those bright digital billboards alongside highways were getting. And Netter thought it made sense to adapt the idea for vehicles.
She offers to pay commuters for the gas they burn driving around, if they put one of her signs in their vehicles.
So far, she has about 450 commuters signed up.
But for now, Netter has signs in only a dozen trucks, SUVs or vans.
Right now, she doesn't know if the signs are legal. State law bans signs on the side and rear windows of cars but permits them on the windows of vans, SUVs and trucks, which are often used commercially. Even so, Netter's signs raise questions becase they're illuminated.
"Whether we're legal or illegal until those statutes are clarified we don't want to put additional inventory into the street," Netter said.
So far, Netter said she hasn't had a ruling one way or the other.
She said there have been no accidents involving the signs. And she hopes their track record will help convince law enforcement officials the mobile electronic signs are NOT a safety hazard.
Netter said she follows or exceeds state regulations on billboards, limiting the frequency with which they change and their brightness, particularly at night.
"At night, the light drops to less than the brake or directional lights," she said. "So, from a safety standpoint, your eyes are always going to be drawn to the brightest things, which are the brake and directional lights of the vehicles."
Netter's attempt to launch her company comes at a time when both federal and state authorities are ramping up efforts to combat distracted driving.
The State Patrol does have some concerns about the signs' legality. Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol says there's a law against citizens have having colored lights on their vehicles.
"Your standard vehicle going down the road is prohibited from any exhibition of colored lights other than their headlights, tail lights and signal lights," he said. "That would be the sticking point for this: if that would be considered a colored light or not."
If you drive on Highway 61 in White Bear Lake, you may spot the digital sign Jamie Ogden has has had deployed on his SUV for a little more than a week.
"It's got a little bit more of a wow factor," Ogden said.
Odgen is a realtor and restaurant owner who promotes his business via the digital sign.
He can't say he's got any business from the sign, so far. But he likes its promotional potential.
"Bus benches and billboards and even sometimes ads in the paper ... they just kind of tend to blend into the background," he said.
Ogden can readily create and change ads on his laptop and send them to the projector mounted inside his SUV's roof.
He says he can post traffic and public safety alerts that could make for safer roads.
In Ogden's view, the sign is attention-getting but not distracting.
"It's not not something you need to keep your eyes focused on," he said. "You might look at it and go, 'Oh, that's neat.'"
But is it legal? Netter of Rear Window Media hopes to have that issue resolved soon. For now, her advertising initiative remains in trial mode.
- All Things Considered, 03/10/2010, 4:45 p.m.