The electronic mobile billboards are touted by a young ad agency founder as an innovative new medium. But there's a problem: They're not legal.
Eric Hartsock, the 34-year-old creative director of a five-person Stevensville, Md., shop called Underground Advertising, came up with the idea to use variable message signs (VMSs) for ads while driving along a heavily trafficked Maryland roadway.
'YOU HAVE TO LOOK'
"These signs are all over the side of the road and you have to look at them," he said. "The signs sometimes direct drivers to a radio frequency for the latest road conditions, so we thought why not have them tune in to a cool radio station?"
He rented a VMS and cut a deal to promote local radio station WRNR-FM on a sign along a Maryland highway. Harley Davidson of Annapolis and ToadNet, an Internet service provider, also bough the mobile ads.
For a fee ranging from $2,000 to $5,000, Underground supplies the sign, obtains permission from a private landowner with highway-adjacent property and creates snappy slogans to rotate on the board for a period anywhere from a few days to a month.
The signs are usually placed along high-traffic roadways, such as I-295 -- a main link between Baltimore and Washington -- and U.S. 50, a popular path to the beach.
ILLEGAL ON FEDERAL ROADS
Gary Bowman, coordinator of outdoor advertising for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said the VMS ads are "totally illegal." A brochure on state outdoor advertising rules explains that "the 1965 Federal Highway Beautification Act and Maryland state laws prohibit any type of off-premise advertising adjacent to Maryland's interstate highways." That includes I-295 and route. 50.
Such signs can be legal adjacent to state roads, but require special permits from the state and county. In addition, Maryland requires anyone who sells outdoor advertising to obtain a license from the state.
Even if Underground got a license and permits -- it hasn't applied -- use of a VMS as an ad vehicles is illegal, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Mr. Hartsock insisted he didn't know his roadside ads were illegal, but he said clients love the medium and he has no plans to stop. In fact, he said Underground has another sign going up this week on a Maryland state highway; he wouldn't identify the client or the road.
David Troy, CEO of ToadNet, placed a one-week VMS ad (headline: "Want to go fast?") to promote his company's high-speed Internet access service. He said he wondered whether the sign was legal, but figured "like anything, there are ways around stuff."
He also thought the idea was innovative: "It certainly contributes to our branding and conveys to consumers that we are a company that thinks outside the box."
$500 FINE POSSIBLE
According to Mr. Bowman of Maryland's highway administration, Underground can be slapped with a $500 fine and have its signs confiscated. But first it has to be caught.
Underground said it placed one VMS sign on land owned by an Annapolis restaurant adjacent to U.S. 50 from June 11 to June 21 but heard no complaints. According to Maryland Vehicle Administration records, some 1.2 million cars used the roadway just that week.
"That sign was passed by plenty of traffic cops," Mr. Hartsock said. "No one stopped us."
Mr. Bowman said an inspector routinely surveys the area for illegal billboards. But "it's a lot of ground to cover," he said, adding, "it's just like a speeding ticket: You're OK if you're not caught."
Even if he is caught, Mr. Hartsock said with a laugh, "It wouldn't be the first