April Fools! Marketers Buy Esquire Spoof

An article in the April issue of Esquire magazine about FreeWheelz, a fictitious Internet-based firm that gives away cars plastered with advertisements, has raised red flags in various marketing circles.

What started as an April Fools piece seemingly has grown into a miniature version of “War of the Worlds” for information-hungry Internet marketers and investors who didn’t get the spoof.

A spokesman at Esquire said that two real-life companies with similar business models, Myfreecar.com and Freecar.com, contacted the New York-based publication, inquiring about their competition.

Autowraps.com, a company that pays drivers to place ads on their vehicles, phoned Esquire to complain about the irreverent nature of the article and is considering a slander lawsuit. Daniel Shifrin, president of the Solana Beach, CA-based firm, said he learned about the story from a disappointed company investor.

“He called me up and said, ‘I thought you were the only company doing this.’ I saw the article and thought we had some new competition, which — with the publicity of the story — I thought was good for this ad medium,” he said.

Shifrin took objection a few days later when he learned from the investor that the story was a spoof.

“This business isn’t a joke, it’s a reality,” Shifrin said. “We were just a little concerned that people wouldn’t take what we do seriously when they should.”

Ted Fishman, contributing editor at Esquire and author of the article, said his piece made its point: that the perceived potential of e-commerce has overwhelmed people into believing most any industry news. Even about marketers giving away minivans decorated with feminine hygiene ads.

“I thought the part about participants having to send in stool samples would be a dead give away, but ad agencies have called me up about the article because they want to contact Freewheelz,” he said. “And I told them that it’s a hoax, and in the end, they were still interested in the idea. I couldn’t talk them out of it. It has me wondering if I should’ve started the business instead of writing the piece.”

Fishman said the piece he submitted was more realistic but that Esquire made him throw in seemingly absurd story lines. Nonetheless, he said the story produced dozens of daily phone calls to the magazine, mostly from interested marketers. Fishman added that he has received close to 100 e-mails because of the piece, “and most of those haven’t been from people who want cars.”

To increase the believability of the story, Esquire launched www.freewheelz.com, which has received 500 hits daily. The Web site features a downloadable TV commercial that was supposed to run during the CBS broadcast of college basketball’s Final Four last weekend. The ad, also part of the joke, never aired during the telecast.

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