An increasing number of fleets are turning the sides of their equipment into giant ads - and getting cash in return. Can you?

Fleets have always earned revenue from the insides of their trailers and truck boxes - the areas that carry the freight. Now, however, there's a growing opportunity to make money using the outside of their equipment as well.

Fleets can earn $300 to $500 per truck (or trailer) each month by turning this equipment into a "rolling billboard," says Eric Feinberg, founder and president of AdverTrailer, a Florida-based company that specializes in truck-side advertising.

Yet Feinberg, whose company has lined up access to some 16,000 trucks and trailers from the less-than-truckload fleets of Yellow Freight System, Roadway Express, and Old Dominion Freight Lines for billboard-like ads, believes this is just the tip of the iceberg for the trucking industry. "This is an additional profit center for them," he explains. "It's a long-overdue concept. The whole industry is about to explode."

Money for the making It's not that truck-side advertising is a new idea. In fact, city buses have sported billboards hawking everything from perfume to television shows for years. What's different is that fleets are now in a much better position to profit from this venture.

For the first time, ads on the sides of trucks can be officially audited, giving advertisers a way to calculate how many people will see their message during a certain period of time. This is something they've always been able to do for TV, radio, or newspaper ads.

In addition, the cost of reproducing large, high-quality color ads - as well as attaching them to and removing them from the sides of trucks and trailers - has dropped dramatically in the last two years. In fact, now it's actually cheaper than putting such large wraparound ads on city buses.

It costs about $3,000 to $5,000 to design and produce a truck-side ad, and about $2,000 to $3,000 a month to rent space on the side of truck or trailer. To run the same ad on a bus, which has a long row of windows on each side, would cost two to three times as much.

To advertisers, truck-side ads are one of cheapest deals in town. If we break down the numbers, we'll see why. Advertising expenses are expressed in terms of CPM, or cost per thousand, i.e., what it costs to reach 1,000 people.

Here are some examples of ad costs in more traditional media, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The cost of reaching 1,000 people with a 30-second prime-time spot is about $18.90; a quarter-page black and white ad in a national newspaper, $11.03; a four-color ad in a national magazine, $9.14; and a 60-second spot during "drive time" on the radio, $5.57.

What about truck-side ads? Reaching 1,000 people costs only about 65 cents, which explains why advertisers are suddenly very interested in developing close relationships with trucking companies.

This makes it pretty clear why the $4.4-billion outdoor advertising industry is opening up to fleets, especially those serving metropolitan markets, says Mark Gearin, manager of fleet advertising for Yellow Freight System, Overland Park, Kan.

"We're moving full speed ahead on this," he says. "Right now, we have 120 trucks involved, primarily in just local metro markets, but we're probably going to increase that to 300 or 400 in the next few months."

How it's done There are two primary methods of truck-side advertising: flex-side and decal systems.

Flex-side systems use frame rails and rubber tie-down straps to attach flexible, fiberglass "billboards" to the sides of trucks and trailers. This system requires holes to be drilled into a trailer or straight-truck box so the truck-side billboard can be securely attached.

Decal systems, on the other hand, are nothing more than giant, micro-thin sheets of film rolled on by hand. They stick to the sides of trucks and trailers with a semi-permanent adhesive.

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Despite the need for drilling holes and attaching straps, the flex-side system is actually slightly cheaper than the decal system. In addition, ads can be attached and removed relatively quickly.

The main drawback to this system is visual. As the ads are spray-painted onto the flex-board, the resolution is reduced. Some industry experts also worry that the ads could be dislodged during an accident, becoming a hazard to motorists.

By contrast, quality and a new adhesive material called Control-Tac are the strong points of the decal system. Developed by 3M Commercial Graphics in the 1990s, the new vinyl is designed to have a maximum durability of one or two years.

Control-Tac adhesives function like "post-it notes." At just 1- to 2-mm thick, decals can be easily manipulated after being placed on vehicles, and can be peeled off in 30 minutes without using heat or chemicals. In addition, the advent of digital printing systems makes it possible for high-resolution graphics to be printed on thin vinyl sheets, creating photographic-quality prints.

Those new developments also reduced the cost of using the decal system, says Charlie Calisto, 3M's marketing manager for fleet and commercial markets. "It used to cost $40,000 to create a high-quality graphic image and apply it to one 48-ft. trailer," he says. "With digital printing, we can do it for $5,000 or less for a whole fleet of trucks."

Gauging impressions None of those technological advances would be worth anything, however, without a way to figure out how many people actually "see" such advertisements, Calisto says. "I've been involved in this market for six years, and one obstacle that has always existed up to now has been the ability to determine effective circulation," he says.

That is, until the Traffic Audit Bureau (TAB) got involved last December. A nonprofit organization made up of advertising agencies, advertisers, and outdoor advertising companies, TAB audits billboard ads along U.S. highways. The group verifies the location of billboards, makes sure they are kept up, and measures the volume of traffic to track how many impressions a billboard generates.

In 1997, 3M approached TAB about applying these billboard-tracking tactics to truck-side ads. That's done by marrying the global positioning systems (GPS) used by trucking companies to the federal government's Highway Performance Monitoring System, which describes road layouts and gives a pedestrian and automotive traffic count per hour. Those numbers are then used in conjunction with truck routes laid out via GPS to determine how many people might see an ad at a particular point along a truck's path on an hour-by-hour basis.

"TAB is to the advertising industry what the UL symbol is to the electrical industry," Yellow's Gearin says. "That seal of approval has allowed this idea to take off, since advertisers have a way of knowing how many impressions a certain truck in a certain market will generate."

The future A 25-year company veteran, Gearin started working full time on truck-side advertising for Yellow eight months ago. He believes it has almost limitless potential in terms of type of advertising and fleet revenue.

"It's really still in the embryonic stage," he says. "I think many are testing the idea, using it primarily for local markets. We've had only one request for 'over-the-road' advertising using our tractor-trailers." Gearin points out that truck-side advertising is a "pure profit stream" for fleets, and doesn't interfere in any way with their primary job - delivering the freight.

AdverTrailer's Feinberg also thinks truck-side advertising could be a gold mine for fleets, especially when the name-awareness needs of Internet companies are factored in.

"You see trucks everywhere, so it's a great way to get your company's name out there quickly and cheaply," he says. "Every day, trucks are making deliveries. Taking a dot-com company's image and putting it on the side of a truck gives it a greater presence. And since most things sold over the Internet are delivered by trucks, it fits in well as a way to sell an Internet company's image."

"A lot of the dot-coms need to get their names out there," adds Gearin. "What better way than on a rolling billboard that can move around the country?"