Guerilla advertising: Boards hop around Main Street

Advertising has always sought to conquer every medium. From racecars to restrooms, no surface is safe. Now, one company has advertising on the move.

National Mobile Billboards, a Florida-based company, has come to our humble little town, contracted by SunTrust Bank to tout its new branch on the Corner.

In late August, the Mobile Billboard– or truck-with-a-giant-sign-on-it, as some call it– stealthily moves from two-hour parking spot to two-hour parking spot up and down Main Street all day.

While Charlottesville officials say it's perfectly legal, a similar maneuver ran into trouble in Chesterfield County in August when realtor Ellen Clark parked a truck bearing her image at a Lowe's home improvement center.

"It's really a simple matter," says Chesterfield County spokesperson Don Kappel. "We have an ordinance that says you can't do that."

Charlottesville, although sometimes criticized as ordinance-heavy, has no such ban.

"Our position is that it's not prohibited under City Code or City Ordinance," says Charlottesville's attorney, Craig Brown.

The first such signs in recent memory came in 1989, when an enterprising UVA First Year bought an old van and asked a friend to weld billboards to it. That student, Kent Schwager, dubbed his project "Chariot Advertising" and operated it until 1993.

Using his student parking pass, Schwager would park his Chariot at University Hall, or occasionally rent a parking space at a fraternity house. He says he never encountered any regulatory hurdles.

Driving along Route 29 recently, Schwager says, he was impressed when he spotted the slick new Mobile Billboard. "I didn't look at the sign," says Schwager, "but it was an impressive rig."

Not everyone's so pleased with the concept.

"Parking is for people going to stores, not for advertising," says Kay Slaughter, billboard fighter for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

If Charlottesville officials ever decide to ban mobile billboards, they might want to watch the Chesterfield case. Clark vows to take her case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Clark says officials ignored her truck and others until a "jealous realtor" started complaining.

"They need to either make the law for everybody or nobody," says Clark.