Are You Ready to Turn Your Car Into a Mobile Billboard?

A Grabb-It ad in a car window.
Parking that pays for itself?

There are 411,000 cars in San Francisco. That’s a lot of business, if you’re an auto mechanic. It’s a lot of traffic, if you’re an environmentalist. For Gaurav Garg, it’s a lot of billboard space.

Garg is the founder of Grabb-It, a start-up that is turning the city’s car windows into a distributed outdoor advertising platform. Some three-dozen drivers in the city have agreed to host the company’s screens in their cars, playing an endless stream of video ads targeted at passersby.

Unlike a banner ad on a bus or a plumber’s logo on a van, Garg told me, his company can cycle in advertisements targeted to the neighborhood, the block, or the minute—bringing some of the digital ad industry’s moneymaking techniques into the real world. And he insists there are advantages to selling ads you can touch. “Users believe in outdoor advertising more,” he said. “There’s a sense of trust.”

Even as online advertising booms, streetscape ads have grown in popularity with initiatives like LinkNYC, a set of nearly 2,000 digital billboards installed in New York by a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet that do double-duty as sidewalk Wi-Fi and charging stations. In London, old phone booths are being controversially converted into ad space.

Grabb-It, which is currently running ads from the eyewear company Luxottica among other clients, takes advantage of a few opportunities for arbitrage. First: Real estate in U.S. cities is expensive but street space is free. Buying ad space in a high-profile location can cost a ton (and is subject to regulation). Driving through that same space—and often, parking there too—is free, whether you’re advertising or not.

Grabb-It isn’t the first company to take advantage of this mismatch. Public transit has long sold its vehicles to advertisers as giant walking billboards; businesses small and large have capitalized with zany branded vehicles. Cities have been fighting against “mobile billboards” since they were pulled by horses.

Second, most American cars are built to seat five, but are used by one person, most of the time. Grabb-It’s displays block the light from one backseat window, meaning they’re not ideal for cab drivers. But they’re a good fit for the burgeoning fleet of drivers working for companies like Postmates charged with delivering freight. Garg says Grabb-It drivers can earn $300 to $400 a month in ad revenue if they are driving 40 hours a week. (That is, of course, more driving than almost anyone does.)

In some ways, the model looks like Minority Report. But in others, it’s simply an expansion of the digital ad business that is flourishing on the top of taxi cabs. Earlier this year, Atlanta-based Strong Digital Media outbid an existing contractor to run the ad program on the roofs of 3,600 New York City yellow cabs. It has converted 300 “taxi tops” to screens blaring video ads through the streets of New York, which it says generate 43.2 million impressions per day—about 140,000 views per cab.

Back in the day, only a proud, dedicated small business owner would want to turn their personal vehicle into an advertisement. But these days, someone’s car is just as likely to be a depreciating asset in the service of a gig economy job. You’re working for a company, why shouldn’t your car?

Correction, October 26, 2018: This article initially misstated that the LinkNYC boards were run by Google; more accurately, they were installed by Intersection, a company launched by Sidewalk Labs, which is a part of Alphabet, which Google renamed itself in 2015.