Help! I've been bagvertised

Just when you thought there was nowhere else dot-com ads could go ...

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published June 5, 2000 6:31PM (EDT)

They've taken over billboards, buses, VW bugs and even our bananas. Now, we have the chance not just to look at dot-com ads all day on virtually every blank surface, but to become dot-com ads ourselves.

I confronted the disquieting truth that I had become a walking dot-com billboard when I waltzed merrily out of 24th Street Cheese Company in San Francisco with my Carr's crackers and aged Gouda. Looking down, I realized that I wasn't just carrying the caloric equivalent of three days worth of meals, but also a crisp white bag printed on all four sides with employment advertising for the Red Herring. "Want a great job? Get hooked on Red Herring.," I was unintentionally telling anyone intrigued by the unappetizing graphic of a red fish.

With the bag in my hand listing "exciting opportunities," from "magazine editorial" to "Internet application development," and the much repeated Red Herring URL, I felt like I was wearing a recruitment sandwich board.

"You can't stop those bags from going into your office, your home. People buy a muffin or a doughnut and then they take them into your boardroom," boasts Moses Abughosh, president of Smart Bags, a San Francisco company he started in January to give the free bags to local shops and cafes. This ingenious scheme to plaster ads on one more unavoidable surface even has its own groan-inducing verb: "Bagvertise."

For the stores, it's a deal: "Nice bags at no cost to you. It's that simple," says Sal Antolin, a fromagier at the cheese shop. "It's free advertising for the company, and we're happy. They're great bags."

But how much money does it really save a shopkeeper? Peter Patsay of J&J Wine and Spirits in San Francisco's Richmond District, who wraps Ravenswood Zinfandel and the like in the bags, says the savings are meager: "A little bit of money. Not much. Like maybe $12 in a month, or in three weeks, I don't know."

Abughosh of Smart Bags started attaching menus to bags at his own cafes and says he saw his business increase by 15 percent; then, while teaching kickboxing, mainly to executives who complained about the difficulties of recruiting people, he invented "bagvertising."

His first and only cold call was to the Red Herring: "I wanted to do something big, the king or the queen of the industry," so he called the Herring. "They write about everybody," he says. The strategy worked, and some 40 companies have approached SmartBags since the Red Herring bags first appeared about three weeks ago. So far, SmartBags claims to have signed up 500 stores in the Bay Area. Abughosh expects to open in one new market by the end of July and be in 10 cities by the end of the year. At that point, he hopes to be pushing some 5 million "bagvertisements" a week, nationwide.

The price for the moment is $25,000 for 200,000 bags. Red Herring is apparently going for a second campaign. Httprint has signed up, and both CyberGold and LookSmart are talking about bag campaigns.

Though it may irk the ad-saturated to be turned into billboards themselves, the Smart Bags business plan could prove more viable than those of some of its customers. Abughosh muses: "Especially in the dot-com world, the life expectancy isn't that long. Maybe we'll last longer than a dot-com."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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