Can Turning Your Car Into an Ad Put Your Freelance Career Into Overdrive? It Did for This Guy

By Jennifer Graham September 25th, 2014

When Mark Peter Hughes needed to market his children’s novel Lemonade Mouth, he found the most effective advertising in his driveway.

In 2007, the Boston writer paid about one thousand dollars to transform his minivan into a bright yellow billboard for his book. He then set out on a cross-country trip with his family, reaching more potential readers on a 13,000-mile drive than any Publishers Weekly review probably could. The result: Lemonade Mouth became its own brand, with a sequel and a Disney movie.

Of course, it also helped that Lemonade Mouth is a well-written, compelling story about five high-school students who meet in detention, form a band, and proceed to challenge injustices at their school (including the loss of a beloved lemonade vending machine to favor the soda company that financed the sports scoreboard). But the contributions of the minivan, affectionately named “Penelope,” cannot be understated. For seven years, the vehicle chugged around New England, enthusiastically hawking the book with every mile.

“I think if I were to take the wrap off now, the whole car would fall apart,” Hughes said.

Novelists aren’t the only writers who can put their careers into overdrive using their cars. In the digital age, freelancers must not promote just our work, but also our personal brands; it’s the overall package we offer to consumers and clients. And marketing that brand on the side of a car can lead to new work and capture the interest of people we might not otherwise encounter. It’s a relatively inexpensive form of self-promotion for those of us who can’t afford billboards or ads in The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

If you’re interested, here are five things you should know before putting yourself out there on a bumper.

1. To use a car to promote your writing, you have four basic options: bumper stickers, business-card holders, magnets, or car wraps. Car wraps are great, but even with the tax write-off, they may be prohibitively expensive if your personal promotions budget is nil. Also, to drive around with a wrapped car marketing your work requires a level of swagger (maybe even hubris) that an introverted writer might not possess. There will be no runs to the grocery store without attracting a conversation or a crowd. Be certain you’re okay with becoming a wrap star before writing that check.

Bumper stickers, magnets, and business-card holders—about $10 each—are a much cheaper way to promote yourself and test the entrepreneurial waters. But keep in mind, people will have to be right next to the car to see them.

2. You may love your old car, but a rusty, dented VW bus may not be the best vehicle to promote your work. If that’s what you drive, get a new car, or look for other methods to promote your work, lest passers-by associate your clunker with your portfolio. You don’t need to buy a trophy car, but don’t put your website address on a tin can with a license plate.

3. When crafting words to put on your car, you don’t have to make them sweet, but they have to be short. Most people are not professional writers, and thus do not drive with a pen and notebook in hand. (You do, don’t you? I’ve written some of my best work in the car.) Craft lines that are both memorable and Googleable so travelers will remember you and find you online when they get home. Hughes made the name of his book the central image of the wrap, but also put prominently displayed his website,

4. Promote yourself, not your politics. Most newspapers have policies that reporters can’t put political bumper stickers on their cars. You must adopt this policy too. If you’re promoting your book or your website or Twitter feed, don’t promote anything else, especially if it’s divisive. You may think Richard Nixon got a raw deal, but don’t say so on your car, otherwise you could turn away potential customers. (Okay, one exception: Puppies. Everybody loves puppies. Promote the heck out of them if you must.)

5. Finally, check with the DMV about your state’s regulations regarding vehicle advertising. In Massachusetts, for example, it’s illegal to wrap a car, or even affix a promotional magnet to the door, without a commercial license plate. (Bumper stickers, however, are okay.) But even if your state requires a commercial plate for self-promotion, it may be worth the investment. In Massachusetts, where Hughes lives, the difference between a commercial and personal license plate can be as little $70 a year, depending on the model and weight of the car.

For Hughes, the car-wrap investment more than paid off. It attracted attention for his work wherever he went, from driving to a book signing to picking his kids up at school. After seven years and 270,000 miles, though, Penelope is ready for retirement—she’s a 1996 Honda Odyssey, after all. On October 4, Hughes and his family are throwing a party in her honor before “sending her to the Great Parking Lot for Beloved Vehicles in the Sky.”

Image by Jay Mantri
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