In the summer of 2007, Wayland resident Mark Peter Hughes packed his family in a shockingly yellow van and drove 13,000 miles across the nation on an extended vacation, flouting an unknown number of laws along the way.
The crime was not speeding, but advertising. The car was a billboard in motion, encased in a vinyl “wrap” hawking Hughes’s website and book. While Hughes and his wife look at the 1996 Honda Odyssey and see “family minivan,” local governments look at it and see “commercial vehicle.” It’s a distinction that can prove costly.
In Isle of Palms, S.C., the City Council is trying to fine a local businessman $1,000 a day for parking his car where motorists can see an advertisement on the rear windshield. The city believes the green Smart car is a billboard violating its laws regarding signs. The owner maintains it’s a car.
Rare as such enforcement actions might seem, we’re bound to see more of them. The spread of “personal branding” — the relentless marketing of one’s professional self — beyond Twitter and Facebook, to the cars that we drive, was inevitable. In a persistently tough economy, everyone’s competing for attention, and few get the luxury of quitting at 5 o’clock.
I should note here that, every time I drive to a book signing, I slap a magnetic flier promoting my book to my Jeep. Or, rather, I used to, until I learned that Massachusetts state law demands that I register the Jeep as a commercial vehicle — regardless of the percentage of time it’s used for business. And Hughes’s van? With flashy graphics and slogans on every surface but the roof, it’s a rolling crime scene every time the author picks up his three kids from school. The line between our professional and personal lives seems blurry to everyone — except, it seems, from the governments who tax us.
“A passenger car, like my personal Honda that I drove and parked at the commuter rail station this morning, may not have advertising displayed on it,” wrote Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, in an e-mail.
For Lavoie’s 3,000-pound Honda Accord, that’s a difference of about $70, plus whatever extra her insurer would charge. It’s a modest difference, but failure to comply is $100 for the first offense; up to $1,000 if you’re cited again.
But governments who look hungrily at car advertising as a new source of income run the risk of looking like the bad guy, particularly when they themselves are turning to new kinds of advertising to bolster their fiscal health. Virginia, for example, is thinking of selling the names of its bridges, and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority sold the name of a subway stop to Barclays Bank.
Besides, it doesn’t seem fair to equate advertising on an individual’s personal car, a literal mom-and-pop operation, with, say, a fleet of carpet-cleaning trucks. It had not occurred to Hughes that his van could be considered a commercial vehicle.
“It’s our family car. It’s just a fun, family thing,” Hughes said. “People honk and wave, run up to us when we’re filling the gas tank.”
Hughes paid a little more than $1,000 for the design, installed by DGI Invisuals of North Billerica. It’s a relatively simple process, like stretching Saran Wrap over a plate of cookies. But as a marketing tool, it’s wildly effective. Hughes believes the exposure played a role in his novel’s success. Titled “Lemonade Mouth,” it became a brand in itself, with a sequel and Disney movie.
Meanwhile, the minivan, affectionately named “Penelope,” is more like a pet than a car to the Hughes family. As a commercial vehicle, it’s of dubious worth, with 260,000 rusty miles. “I think if we were to take the wrap off now, the whole car would fall apart,” Hughes said.
Sensibly, the town of Wayland has no current plan to tax or fine Penelope into oblivion; employees said they knew of no town laws regarding car signage. But the nation’s Fun Police won’t hold off forever. The same types of people who shut down lemonade stands because children didn’t purchase a business license will show no mercy to the Lemonade Mouth van. If you, too, promote yourself or your business on a personal car, get thee a commercial plate, and quickly.
Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.