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Ads appear on dollar bills
It had to happen: Ad agency uses the greenback to promote a TV show.
January 22, 2004: 1:43 PM EST
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Consumers these days endure advertising on the floors of supermarkets, in the sanitary-cakes of urinals, even tattooed onto the heads of college kids.

Better than TV?  
Better than TV?

So is there any open space left that marketers can use to make a buck? Well, the buck itself.

The trade publication Advertising Age reported this week that cable television's USA Network has launched an unusual promotion to publicize its upcoming "Traffic: The Miniseries."

The network is distributing 50,000 one-dollar bills in trendy bars in Los Angeles and New York. Affixed on each of those bills: a removable sticker bearing the USA Network logo, along with the title and airtime of the three-part miniseries.

Based on the movie of the same title, the show is about drug dealers, users, and the position of cash at the center of drug culture lifestyles.

"The topic of 'Traffic' revolves around the many ways that money lures people into incredibly dangerous situations," said Paul Woolmington, CEO of Media Kitchen, the New York-based agency that created the campaign. "We did a lot of brainstorming, and it all came back to money."

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Working with GoGorilla, a guerilla marketing agency, Media Kitchen arranged to put 1,000 ad-laden bills into the cash registers at 25 bars in New York, and another 25 in Los Angeles. When a tippler buys a drink, part of the change is in the form of the promo cash.

"People talk about the Internet or word-of-mouth. But given the way it circulates, money is the most viral medium there is," says Woolmington. "We estimated that each bill will touch 25 to 40 hands."

Even if the first customer just rips the sticker off, the campaign may achieve its main goal of getting a small, but influential, demographic group to notice, said Woolmington. "Just by going into the bars, we're reaching a lot of influencers." (Those are the people willing to pay $15 for a Red Bull and vodka, in order to drink it fashionably.)

The nontraditional campaign is a relatively cheap way to attract attention. That's not to say it didn't face a hurdle or two.

For one thing, it is against the law to deface currency (see Title 18, Section 333 of the U.S. Code). According to the Treasury Department, messing with money is punishable by a small fine, or even imprisonment of up to six months.

"We've been very sensitive and respectful," said Woolmington. The stickers use a very light adhesive, and come off easily without tearing the bill or leaving a mark, so they pass legal muster.

Greenbacks as billboards

If plastering removable stickers on bills is not technically the same thing as actually advertising on money itself, the obvious next step is to turn greenbacks into billboards.

Would you support selling ads on currency to reduce the deficit?

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Imagine "E Pluribus Unum" replaced with "Coke: It's the Real Thing." It may sound crazy, but American governments do have some experience in brand marketing.

Cash-strapped New York City, for example, cut a $166 million deal last year to make Snapple the official drink of the city's public schools. (Kids might drink it on field trips to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where they'll see the Con Edison Pond or the Mitsubishi Wild Wetland Trail.)

Other municipalities are in the game, too. Metro farecards in Washington, D.C., carry ads on them, as do timetables. And Ohio-based EGovnet sells ads on behalf of a number of cities, including Honolulu and Salt Lake.

On the federal level, the Postal Service has resisted calls to sell ad-driven postage, but it does do a brisk business peddling commemorative stamps. (Not to mention cycling gear for the USPS racing team, which the service pays to sponsor.)

Imagine, then, if the 8 billion or so dollar bills in circulation carried an ad. Talk about reach.

In fact, in 1995, a poll sponsored by Visa International found that 35 percent of Americans said they supported the sale of ad space on bills, if the proceeds would be used to reduce the federal deficit.

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In 1997, columnist Bob Greene raised the notion in a piece he wrote for the Chicago Tribune.

After submitting the idea to the Treasury "with great pride," he wrote, "it took two days and three spokesmen for me to get the official answer."

That response? A resounding no.  Top of page

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