ATLANTA — When Nia Lewis was looking for a car to drive to Florida to visit her in-laws, she went to the Atlanta Budget Rent a Car Web site as she normally does. But she stumbled upon something unusual.
There on the site's home page was a big discount. The catch? The car is a moving ad.
With the price of gasoline approaching $4 a gallon and the economy still in bad shape, Budget is hoping more deal-hungry vacationers want to rent cheaper vehicles — as long as they don't mind driving a billboard.
Lewis read the fine print on the site, searched the company that the ads were promoting and filled out a questionnaire that asked what types of areas she might be visiting.
But the selling point was the price: Lewis saw that she could get an SUV that would usually cost closer to $300 for a four-day trip for about $88.
She was sold.
"The price definitely outweighed everything," said Lewis, who will be traveling with her husband and 2-year-old daughter at the end of August. "I think it's a neat idea. You're paying them to advertise their vehicle, but they're helping you because it's a much cheaper rate than I would've paid."
The rental car company is launching its sponsored rental vehicles campaign in Atlanta, one of its major hubs, with 15 full-size sedans and 10 intermediate SUVs. Those are the sizes most frequently rented by leisure travelers and families.
The cars are outfitted with ads for Sheets Brand Energy Strips, a product launched earlier this summer. The promotion was brokered by Wrap Media Group, which offers brands non-traditional advertising.
The Budget campaign is a first for all three companies, and the Atlanta promotion continues through November. But the concept is not entirely new, having been applied to vehicles like trucks and buses. Companies emblazon their corporate fleets with logos, and independent contractors often promote their wares on car doors and bumpers.
Renters who choose a sponsored vehicle will get the car at a significant discount or might be eligible for a free upgrade. The cars can be rented online or at one of Budget's Atlanta locations. The promotional rate will depend on the market rate and availability.
Heather Etzler, vice president and general manager for Budget's Atlanta branch, said the campaign was in keeping with the company's mission to provide the best value for customers. She said Budget expected renters would find the ads exciting and in good taste.
"This will help us build a relationship with customers we don't have at this point," Etzler said. "We think the demand is going to be there. With a world that is so driven with coupons and discounts, we think it's going to be a great relationship."
Wrap Media Group president Ira Berke said the partnership was a win-win for consumers and the companies.
"It's not just a blatant sell," Berke said.
It's a strategy that definitely stands out. The black-and-white Sheets logo covers three sides of the all-red vehicles, and the ads feature Sheets' slogan, Web site and its social media addresses. The ads also say the product has B vitamins, no calories and no sugar.
Wrap Media vice president Matt Custage said the company was negotiating with other brands interested in similar campaigns. Part of the Sheets' promotion includes free samples of the product, which will be available in the vehicles for renters to try — or not.
Warren Struhl, chief executive officer of Pure Brands — which owns Sheets — said he was excited about the prospect of his brand being exposed to people on the street and at restaurants, shopping malls, parks, beaches and other popular destinations.
"I'm always looking for opportunities to leverage every dollar in an untraditional fashion," said Struhl, who has built several consumer products companies.