Whatever the name, marketers are taking to the streets with brand-bedecked vehicles outfitted with gizmos and high-tech trappings.
These vehicles roll into public events to give consumers an up-close and personal experience with the product.
From drug-store chains to the National Basketball Association to brewers to the armed forces, companies are jumping on the bandwagon or, in this case, building their own.
One of the more unusual road shows is the fleet of USMC Hummers: viper-red armament carriers complete with stereo, video, armor plate and bulletproof glass that the Marines use to attract recruit prospects at sporting events, music festivals and state fairs.
The Hummers are actual combat vehicles equipped to carry a Stinger missile launcher or Mark-19 machine gun-although the traveling fleet is armed with merely a PA system.
"We are trying to put our sales force, the Marine Corps recruiters, face-to face with their prospects," says Tim Cronin, account exec for Marine Corps agency J. Walter Thompson USA, Atlanta. "And it is just kind of a magnet for our target group of males [age] 17-to-24."
Visitors to a Hummer stopover can't ride in the vehicles but can interact in other ways. Once the Hummer has drawn a crowd, Mr. Cronin explains, they are invited to participate in a "Chin-up Challenge" for a chance to win Marine paraphernalia like T-shirts, caps and canteens.
The interactive possibilities of such an approach helped drive drug store chain Eckerd Corp. to launch the RxV last fall.
Described as a "pharmacy of the future" on wheels, the vehicle is a 48-foot-long tractor-trailer with expanding walls that shows an interactive video and a 3-D movie.
According to Julie Gardner, VP-marketing and advertising for the 2,600-store chain, the RxV helps spread the word about Eckerd's innovations-such as prescriptions sent online from doctors to pharmacies, satellite-linked consumer databases and automatic pill dispensers-"in an entertaining format for what would normally be considered dry material.
"We are trying to take the 'who cares' factor out of it," Ms. Gardner says.
While the RxV will be appearing at store openings, health fairs, home shows and senior events, Ms. Gardner points out that "This is not just a consumer vehicle. It is also targeted to health professionals."
For instance, the company plans to bring the RxV to pharmacy schools to attract potential employees.
The project was conceived and executed by Eckerd PR and promotion agency Bratskier & Associates, New York.
Ms. Gardner would not disclose the cost of building and operating the RxV but says the amount represents "a significant investment but a quite efficient one."
BELLS AND WHISTLES
In any case, it is difficult to calculate exactly how much putting on one of the road shows actually costs. The price of the vehicle itself can vary tremendously, as does the number of bells and whistles added.
Bryan Buske, senior VP at GMR Marketing, which makes such vehicles, says his company currently has 16 on the road.
The base vehicle price goes from $50,000 to $75,000 for a touring van to the big semi trucks that run "well into six figures," Mr. Buske says. Personnel, maintenance and insurance cost extra.
It usually takes four to eight months to bring a vehicle "from the palette to the pavement" once a client has decided what it wants, Mr. Buske says, although a simple touring van can be completed much more quickly.
Among the more sophisticated GMR-built marketing vehicles currently in use is the "NBA Jam Van," a 67-foot-long tractor-trailer featuring arcade games, computers linked to the NBA Internet site, Hall of Fame displays and even a portable basketball court.
Other vehicles have included self-contained FM radio stations (for Miller beer); "portable surf simulators" (Foster's); and 45-foot-long grills that can cook 300 bratwurst at a time (Johnsonville Foods).
GMR's newest creation, unveiled at the American International Toy Fair last month, is the "World's Largest Tonka Truck," another 67-foot behemoth created to mark the marketer's 50th anniversary. Featuring a display of Tonka trucks, CD-ROM games, a play area and two toy race tracks, it is slated to visit retailers such as Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Target stores in 40 cities this year.
The vehicle is "not just the world's largest Tonka truck but a truly interactive theme park that can reach thousands of people," says Bob Swanson, team leader for the Tonka brand at parent Hasbro.