Considering the United States Postal Service's well-documented financial struggles, it's no surprise that it's looking to follow in the footsteps of some public transportation fleets by selling ads on some of its vehicles.
As part of a pilot program, Denver-based Lighted Promotions Inc -- which installs lighted outdoor ads on big rigs -- has sold ads on the back of freight trucks owned by companies that contract with the USPS.
Advertising on the trucks cost $500 to $600 for a month. So far, buyers have included state safety agencies, which have run ads on topics relevant to the road -- highway safety, drunk driving, seatbelt safety -- as well as anti-drug and anti-alcohol abuse spots.
Accepting appropriate advertisers and denying inappropriate ones would be just one issue the Postal Service -- or an agency -- would have to manage. Jerry Buckley, marketing director at EMC Outdoor (which among other things does bus wraps but isn't involved with the Postal Service program), raises a good point. Taxpayers, he said, "would react negatively if USPS ran certain types of advertisers. It's important as a brand to be sure they are putting appropriate advertisements up. I think it all comes down to proper management and proper messages"
Even something as seemingly mundane as highway safety issues could raise the ire of critics. It's not hard to imagine taxpayers grousing that an advertising program meant to prop up the USPS is taking in money from taxpayer supported government entities.
In an interview with Ad Age , Lighted Productions CEO Dan Goter said that the agency has already declined ads for political candidates and medical marijuana.
Mr. Goter said that some congressmen have expressed concern that certain types of advertising might compromise the USPS brand. But, he added, "we've demonstrated in that groups of folks that are willing to pay for this are people that will not damage the postal service's brands."
As far as the pricing is concerned, Mr. Goter noted that the price point is significantly cheaper than comparable outdoor advertising spots: "We're trying a brand new product that is relatively unproven in a tight budgetary environment. There are a lot of challenges to overcome. It could be safer to buy a billboard. We've chosen to take the cost objection and put it aside."
The USPS declined to discuss the subject. Whether or not it moves out of the pilot stage -- and expands from ads on 18-wheelers to your local mail carrier's truck -- remains to be seen. The Postal Reform Act introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., currently on the floor includes an expanded program, allowing access to all USPS vehicles and buildings. The bill does have a cost-coverage requirement, calling for USPS to recoup 200% of the cost of pursuing revenue from advertising.
The idea isn't exactly new. On a blog run by the USPS Office of Inspector General, a November 2009 poll asked if selling advertising on USPS property is a good idea. Seventy-one percent of the 470 respondents said yes. But another poll raises the question of who should sell and handle such advertising. Forty-eight percent said the Postal Service should, while 52% said an outside agency should.
The writer of the post goes on to raise a few other questions: "How would the public react to advertising on Postal Service property? Would certain types of advertising be out of bounds? ... And how would selling advertising space affect the Postal Service's brand?"
Two years later, those questions are still unanswered.