Wheeling across the US to get their message across

A growing number of product mobiles are hitting the road

Coming soon to a town near you: A giant, monocled peanut, tipping his top hat from behind the wheel of a huge hot rod. A trio of 11-1/2 foot tall chocolate "kiss" candies, cruising down the road. An oversized telephone on wheels. And a motorized 27-foot-long hot dog - which may look vaguely familiar to anyone who grew up in America in the 1950s.

These vehicular flights of fancy, all products of the latest in industrial design and technology, are aimed at making you smile. But Mr. Peanut's Hot Rod, the Hershey's Kissmobile, the BTI Phone Car, and the ever-popular Oscar Mayer Wienermobile (which first hit the road in 1936), are also increasingly being seen as a great way to do business. These product mobiles are part of a new wave of mobile marketing that has been literally criss-crossing the country in recent years.

"It's advertising that comes to you," says Dan Neil, a contributing editor of Car and Driver magazine, and a self-described fan of product mobiles. "It's an example of advertisers leaving no stone unturned in attempting to get their message across. When you see a 20-foot-long Hershey's Kiss coming at you, you're going to remember that."

Product mobiles first rolled onto America's cultural landscape in 1918, with the advent of the Pep-o-Mint truck. It was later followed by the Wienermobile, and the Zippo lighter car in the mid-1940s. Oscar Mayer actually kept a small fleet of periodically updated and redesigned mobile hot dogs on the road (including a futuristic space-age dog made in the late 1950s) until 1977. It then retired the roving wieners to concentrate more heavily on television advertising.

But when Oscar Mayer brought the Wienermobile back out for a 50th birthday party in 1986, the company was so impressed by public response that it introduced a whole new fleet two years later. "It's been an invaluable marketing tool," says company spokesperson Sarah Delea. "The Wienermobile is really part of the family and part of the Oscar Mayer tradition."

Not long after the return of the Wienermobile, other companies began exploring product mobiles as a creative way to connect with consumers. Hershey Food Corporation, the chocolate manufacturer, settled on a Kissmobile that features three enormous Hershey's Kisses. One "kiss" houses the driver, the second includes a video screen, and the last kiss is a cooler that carries a quarter of a million candy Kisses to give away whenever the Kissmobile appears at an event. (The Kissmobile also raises funds for its longstanding charity partner, Children's Miracle Network).

"These product mobiles communicate so many different messages to the consumer," says Jeff Corder, director of marketing for Marketing Werks, a sales promotion agency that specializes in mobile marketing and which helped develop the Kissmobile. "It says to consumers, this is a fun brand. It says they're willing to go the extra mile to interact with consumers. It's the best way to communicate a brand in a positive, friendly, fun way to consumers."

Although fewer than two dozen of the really huge product mobiles are on the road, mobile marketing is exploding, according to Mr. Corder, who says his company's business has doubled in the past year. Companies that don't want to commit the several hundred thousand dollars it costs to create and maintain a product mobile have other options. Decorated buses or tractor trailers can serve as roving showrooms, opening up to display a company's work. Some companies use small fleets of specialty cars, bearing temporary slogans and designs, to introduce a new product. Twizzler did just that recently, using a fleet of PT Cruisers to give away a million samples of a new candy.

At Protoype Source in Santa Barbara, Calif., about 120 miles north of Los Angeles, a small crew of workers has spent much of the past five months building a Kissmobile, complete with a crock pot in the back that gives off chocolate fumes. This month, it is scheduled to join two existing Kissmobiles, also built by Prototype - one of only two firms in the country that make these huge vehicles.

"We really like to do the really weird ones," says co-owner Bruce Brackman, who says his firm has been turning out one to two product mobiles a year since 1996, In addition to the Kissmobiles, his firm's projects have included Mr. Peanut's Hot Rod, a giant cat-and-dog mobile for Pfizer, a Wild Thornberrys Fun House for Nickelodeon, and a lunar-landing-craft mobile for Reebok, which was designed but never made.

"We get companies that want to add excitement and visibility to their products," says Mr. Brackman, who says it costs anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 to build a product mobile.

Companies measure the success of product mobiles in a variety of ways, according to Marketing Werks's Corder. Because the vehicles are so unusual, they often make local news whenever they roll into town for a fair or other special event - which is, in essence, free publicity for a product. The mobiles are also an effective way to distribute product samples and survey consumer attitudes.

Mr. Neil, at Car and Driver, has called the product mobiles "rolling monuments to successful, even rampant, American capitalism." In fact, he says he sees them as a perfect blending of two great American traditions.

"Americans love cars and they love consuming," he says. "These product mobiles just link these two fundamental desires in such a clever and amusing way. They're really effective. It just hits you in your head and says, 'Buy me.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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