Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

SAN FRANCISCO – The Internet Age has not let any air out of the inflatable sign business.

Inflatable signs shaped like giant tires and the ever-present gargantuan gorilla are hot items on the show floor of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention here.

“It’s a little bit hokey,” admits Dave Bare of Harris Kia in Nanaimo, BC, Canada. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Bare has rented inflatables and confesses he can’t directly link them to any sales. But he says they can serve as an effective ice-breaker, not unlike a good joke at the beginning of a speech.

“It’s about getting noticed,” says Jeff Jacobson, president of Visibility Solutions in Santa Ana, CA.

Consumers may not be ready to buy a car when they see an inflatable on a dealership’s front lawn. But when they decide to move, they likely will remember a store where they saw a giant gorilla.

Why, in an age when Internet-savvy car buyers arrive in showrooms with more product knowledge than some sales reps, is such a primitive technique so effective?

“Because it’s stupid; that would be the first answer,” says Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at Detroit’s University of Detroit-Mercy. “Why does Go Daddy continue to do ridiculous Super Bowl ads? They get buzz, discussion. It gets a laugh; gets you connected.”

But selling cars is not monkey business, Bernacchi reminds. If a dealer cannot deliver the required service after engaging a potential customer, “the air will be let out of your tire, if not gorilla, real quickly.”

The inflatable sign business is growing, says Nick Chris of Inflatable-in-a-Bed Billboard. His Virginia-based company specializes in mobile inflatables that fit into the cargo bed of a pickup truck.

Within four hours of NADA’s trade show, Chris had sold out of a giant tire-shaped mobile sign.

But why are there no giraffe-shaped inflatable signs? Or iguanas? Or giant squid? Why are car dealerships so enamored with gorillas?

Visibility Solutions salesman Cameron Frater has a theory. “Shock value,” he says.