California Considers Advertising on Electronic License Plates

Ethan Lyon

Advertisers have displayed their messages nearly everywhere — from billboards to zeppelins and t-shirts to tattoos. California, the home of tech innovators such as Google and Apple, might offer a new medium to advertise: electronic license plates. It is California’s latest effort to create jobs and fix its $19 b budget deficit. The idea might just be a win-win for California and its commuters.


Digital advertising on electronic license plates might sound extremely distracting and therefore highly dangerous. However, advertisements will only be displayed when the car is stopped for more than a few seconds (e.g. rush-hour traffic). All other times the digital plate will display the license number.

How can consumers benefit from more marketing, particularly on license plates? The end-goal of advertising is to entertain and captivate its audience. Think: while waiting on the gridlocked Golden Gate bridge, wouldn’t it be great to have a laugh at the Geico’s cavemen or watch a preview from Toy Story 3 (or 4 by the time the service is available to the public)?

“Surely anyone would rather look at a license plate adorned with ‘Got Milk’ rather than ‘5XYJ204,’” writes CNET. Indeed, a small TV screen mounted to the bumper of the car in front of you could provide a much-needed break from the tedium that is stop-and-go traffic.

Taking it a step further, the e-license plates could offer QR codes for drivers to receive coupons on their smartphone devices. Or the plates could have a location-based system to trigger local advertising. So you might see an e-license advert for Milk Boy coffee shop, obtain a coupon via your smartphone device, and then actually pass Milk Boy. If you’re not running late, why not use your new coupon for 20 percent off a mocha frappucino?

Shop Joyner At

To some, snapping pictures with your smartphone and location-enabled advertising is not only dangerous but creepy. Let’s deal with the dangerous element first. All e-license advertising is done during times when the car is stopped in traffic. If you’re behind the stopped car viewing the advert, how can you, behind this immobile car, get into an accident?

Secondly, though the developer of the e-license plates (Smart Plates) has not considered location-based advertising, the idea could have some legs. Car owners could opt-out of the GPS option, but as location-based social networks (think FourSquare and Loopt) increase in popularity, consumers are not as concerned with privacy as they might have been in the pre-smartphone world.

Given the perceived distraction and privacy hurdles e-license plates need to overcome, could it be a viable idea? California is in the nascent stages of development and the state is unsure of exactly the amount of revenue it will generate and the number of jobs it will create. For the state known for its innovation, California is certainly pushing its thinking on how to get out of its crippling deficit. And every idea is on the table, including e-license advertising.

Image by Justin Tunney from Stock.Xchng