- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2011

CHICAGO The Windy City is turning to motorists to drive up revenue.

The cash-strapped metropolis plans to raise money by selling corporate ads on vehicle windshield stickers that drivers and passengers will see every time they go for a ride.

“This is an opportunity to potentially bring in millions of dollars in new revenue to the city,” City Clerk Susana Mendoza said when she introduced the idea during her campaign earlier this year. “At this time, it’s important to be thinking of new ways to bring in revenue to the city and more ways the city can partner with our corporate community.”

Chicago isn’t the first city to get creative with car advertisements. Last summer, California tried, but failed, to introduce electronic license plates that could display advertisements and warn of dangerous road conditions or Amber Alerts.

“There are plenty of opportunities, and we think it’s pretty creative,” said Chris Johnson, manager of government relations at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. “Sometimes you have to think outside the box. We appreciate the effort.”

The city clerk’s office hopes to raise $10 million from companies and organizations that want to get their message on about 1.3 million Chicago vehicles via these city “wheel tax” stickers, which must be purchased annually for vehicles in the city more than 30 days. Costs range from $75 to $180 for passenger vehicles.

The advertisements will face inside the vehicle, not out, so motorists don’t feel they are promoting something they don’t like. While California sought to use license plates to market to other drivers, Chicago plans to market only to those within each vehicle.

“We’re not having a logo on the front that faces out to the rest of the world,” Ms. Williams said.

The city sent out a Request for Information last week. After officials look through what companies and organizations would be willing to sponsor the vehicle stickers, it will put out a Request for Proposal later in the fall. Decisions are expected by January in time for the 2012-13 stickers issued in June.

Without the ads, Chicago might have to raise sticker fees or taxes.

“If we do not secure a sponsor, there is a very real chance that City Council might raise sticker fees,” said Kristine Williams, spokeswoman for the city clerk’s office. “Nobody wants fees to go up.”

Critics, though, fear motorists could be forced to stare at advertisements they might find offensive. Even if the advertisements aren’t particularly controversial, they’re not like junk mail that can be discarded.

The city clerk’s office says it wouldn’t select advertisements for alcohol, tobacco or political causes.

“Of course, the clerk is not going to pick something supercontroversial,” Ms. Williams said. “There are certain things you just know are too controversial. Having a liquor advertisement is going to be controversial. Having a Planned Parenthood advertisement is going to be controversial.”

Motorists possibly could choose the ads if the city can find multiple sponsors.

“We’re looking through the logistics of if people would have the choice to pick their sponsor,” Ms. Williams said.

Still, as Mr. Johnson at the chamber points out, “you’re not going to make everyone happy.”

The other concern for the city is how well businesses will respond to the offer and whether it will draw enough sponsors. Mr. Johnson fears the vehicle stickers are too small to entice advertisers.

“Just looking at the sticker, I’m not quite sure where they’re going to fit the ad,” he said.

To combat this problem, the city hopes to use QR codes, which are like bar codes for smartphones, that drivers and passengers can scan with smartphones for updated information from the advertisers. That would extend the advertiser’s reach and allow it to switch promotions at will.

Tradition also may play a role in the life of the ad.

Mr. Johnson pointed out that drivers tend to leave old stickers on their windshields for years, even after they get the new stickers.

“So whoever’s advertising on it might just get a couple extra years.”