It was 1974. My dad told me he had a surprise for me in the driveway. I ran as fast I could. Our baby blue VW bug was now wrapped entirely in an ad for Camel cigarettes. "Just a way to bring in a few extra bucks," he said.
"What will the kids at the sandbox think?" I wondered.
Over the next 30 years, the idea of selling ad space on your own car didn't go away, but it never totally caught on, either. Now, in a flagging economy, more people are looking for "a few extra bucks." Enter freegashelp.com, a 3-year-old Web site that promises free gas cards in exchange for allowing ads on your (decent-looking) car. Sign up for a free membership online, drive at least 1,000 miles a month, and wait for the advertisers to call.
"Our business is up by 300 percent from a year ago," says Mel Jacob, the company's marketing director. "Both our phone service and Web site have crashed periodically in recent months due to the sheer popularity of the idea. We have been receiving 500 to 3,000 e-mails a day by people wanting to put advertising on their cars."
A simple rear window ad decal will earn about $17 in gas a month, while a full car wrap can bring in more than $200 a month in gas cards; desirable car models such as the Honda Element or the Mini Cooper can earn even more.
"Consumers see gas cards as more valuable than cash these days because it forces them to spend the money in the right place," Jacob says.
National advertisers such as State Farm Insurance, Allstate and Cricket (a cell phone service) are participating, and so are local advertisers like realtors and Web businesses.