Economy could turn Illinois squad cars into ads

Sunday, June 8, 2003

BARTONVILLE, Ill. -- With money nearly as tight as jail security, Bartonville Police chief Brian Fenger has no qualms about turning his squad cars into rolling billboards for the sake of a bargain.

Bartonville is among 14 police departments across the state with contracts for brand-new patrol cars that would cost just $1 each in exchange for sharing hoods, doors, roofs and fenders with advertisers.

"There's been a lot of controversy about whether police should do this. Well, if you look around the country or Illinois, nobody has any money," said Fenger, who has trouble keeping seven aging police cruisers on the streets of the bedroom community south of Peoria.

Fenger discounts arguments that police could be compromised by ads sold through the fledgling program launched last year by Government Acquisitions LLC, which has not begun delivering cars.

"Just because you bought an ad doesn't mean I won't write you a ticket," he said.

Police in the other mostly small Illinois towns and counties agree, and say their contracts forbid ads for alcohol, tobacco, firearms and gambling, as well as inappropriate or embarrassing products.

"It's not like you're going to see Dunkin' Donuts on the car. They really think about the officer on the street and don't want to make them look bad in any way," said Richard Raney, police chief in Tolono, south of Champaign.

Signed contracts don't guarantee new patrol cars for the Illinois departments and more than 300 other government agencies already on board around the country.

"It all depends on coming up with enough advertising dollars. So it might happen, it might not happen. There's no guarantee," said Corey Bennett, police chief in Ladd, a town of about 1,300 near LaSalle.

No cars have been delivered yet anywhere in the country, but some could start rolling out later this year, said Ken Allison, president of Government Acquisitions, based in Charlotte, N.C.

For now, he said the company is working to build its market of vehicle-seekers, which include government agencies ranging from schools to police, fire and public works departments. About 5,000 applications are pending, he said.

That market will ultimately enable the company to lure sponsors, who can pay to spread their message nationwide or target a particular geographic area, Allison said.

Government Acquisitions will solicit ads, but is asking agencies to help identify potential sponsors in their areas. That could require detective work in some of the tiny villages on the waiting list.

"They want me to go to the chamber of commerce. We don't even have a chamber of commerce. We're too small," said Karen Hopkins, village clerk in Carbon Cliff, a village of about 1,500 near Moline.

Some police departments, including Bartonville, Glasford and Woodford County, could suggest nearby Fortune 500 companies, such as Caterpillar and State Farm.

Caterpillar has elected not to buy ads while State Farm has yet to be approached.

"It's something that we would have to look at very closely. We're a mutual company owned by our customers, so we have to make sure we're using their dollars effectively," State Farm spokeswoman Zoe Younker said.

Allison acknowledges that selling ads will be easier in big cities, but said the company will exhaust all options to aid small towns.

"You could have a small town of just a thousand people, but what if that small town just happens to be the home of someone like Michael Jordan? There are lots of opportunities out there," Allison said.

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