At this time last year, the stage seemed set for the rapid growth of a relatively new advertising medium many termed “truckside advertising.” Today, however, it seems to be struggling to remain a viable concept.

First, a little background. Truckside advertising is considered part of the “out of home” advertising market, which includes billboards, benches and bus stops. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America says this is a $5.2-billion annual business, with ads on trucks and buses accounting for an $88-million share. But the recession and economic fallout from Sept. 11 may have changed all that.

Charlie Calisto, marketing manager for fleet advertising at 3M Graphics, says that a nationwide slump in advertising expenditures hit the truckside advertising market hard. “We're back to square one to a certain degree,” Calisto told me. “The value of this advertising medium is still there, but price remains the biggest issue. Once the economy comes back and prices stabilizes in their original position, the market will have to be educated about the value of truckside advertising. But first we have to get the competitive value of truckside advertising back to where it was.”

There's another issue lurking under this price war, however, and that's safety. Eric Feinberg, a longtime proponent of truckside advertising, got out of the business last year because he felt that pricing pressures were changing the demographics of the kinds of fleets that would accept ads.

The fleet providing the truckside space used to get about $300 to $500 per vehicle per month, according to industry estimates. But Feinberg says that amount has fallen closer to $100 per vehicle. Those bottom-barrel prices make truckside advertising unattractive to what Feinberg calls the ‘best’ fleets. “You can't get good, safety-conscious fleets with clean vehicles to offer their truck sides up for $100 to $125 per vehicle,” he says.

Not everyone shares in that pessimism, however. Jim Arabanos, president of Minneapolis-based Intran Media, for one, has expanded his company's reach in the truckside advertising market. Intran Media recently became one of the country's largest dealers in truckside advertising by acquiring Atlanta-based rival Media Vehicles from GE Capital.

Arabanos hopes to change how the market is perceived. For starters, he uses the term “mobile outdoor advertising” rather than “truckside advertising.” “I believe semantics are important. I spent 14 years selling indoor advertising, aka ‘bathroom advertising.’ No one took the idea of placing ads in bathrooms seriously until we stopped using the term ‘bathroom advertising.’ Once we stopped using that term, the business took off.”

Arabanos believes he's on to something because his company has become one of the biggest players in the market after being in business for only seven months. “People have been using the term truckside advertising for eight years now and the market has gone nowhere,” he says. “How we position this market has a lot to do with its future success.” Another key to the business, says Arabanos, is to expand the focus on local advertising. “Too often, advertising companies go after the large national accounts first and pay little attention to what we see as the bread-and-butter accounts — local and regional advertisers,” he says.

Will the attitude of Arabanos and others like him be enough to overcome the present challenges facing truckside advertising-especially those about safety and image? That remains to be seen. But although this medium has taken some big lumps of late, it's too early yet to count it out of the advertising game.