MVA criticized over ad coupons

Grumblings: The critics say that mailing commercial offers along with the registration renewal form suggests endorsements by the MVA.

October 29, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The more than 1 million vehicle registration renewal forms being sent to Maryland motorists over the next year will be accompanied by something extra - ads for a free oil change and $25 off on an eye exam.

The advertising packets are part of an agreement between two state agencies and a Waltham, Mass.-based company that saves the Motor Vehicle Administration $100,000 a year and helps the Department of Business and Economic Development promote in-state tourism.

Imagitas Inc. has taken over the printing and mailing of the MVA's vehicle registration forms in exchange for the right to include advertisements in the envelope.

"Our goals were to reduce our costs through the marriage of a public and private partnership," Anne S. Ferro, MVA administrator, said yesterday.

The state tourism office includes Imagitas-printed literature on in-state attractions in the mailings.

Not everyone is happy with the arrangement.

"It gives the impression that the MVA endorses certain companies or the products being advertised," said Del. John Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "Besides that, people are already inundated with junk mail."

Jack Gillis, a spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America, sees both sides of the program. He said he likes the savings it represents for state governments but thinks it is a back-door way of getting junk mail inside a person's home.

"If the ads are packaged with the MVA forms, there could be a perception among the public that the MVA endorses these companies," Gillis said.

Cheron Wicker, a spokeswoman for the MVA, said the first ads were mailed in August. There was a second mailing last month.

The coupons feature promotions from AAA Mid-Atlantic, Visa, Sterling Optical, GEICO Direct, Merchant's Tire & Auto Centers and CPS-Warranty, a company selling extended auto warranty plans.

"The MVA does not endorse any product or company," was printed on the back and front of each coupon in type about the size of this newspaper sentence.

"That's not enough," said Gillis. He said the disclaimer should be "extraordinarily prominent."

Steve McClain, managing director of Imagitas, said the company makes its money from the fees the advertisers pay to be included in the mailings. "We do not get paid by the states," he said.Imagitas has similar programs in Minnesota, Florida, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and a program is expected to be started in New York in January.

Imagitas identifies itself as a privately held marketing company that helps governments save money and helps advertisers reach consumers. McClain said the company has about 100 workers and revenue of about $50 million a year.

He said the company was founded in 1992, and its first project was undertaken in cooperation with the U.S. Postal Service. Imagitas developed The Mover's Guide, which can be picked up at post offices around the country. The guide contains a change-of-address card, along with tips on how to pack and how to get rid of hazardous materials, like paint. And, of course, advertising coupons.

According to McClain, Imagitas was the first private company to win a Hammer Award, something then-Vice President Al Gore came up with to recognize those who helped government be more efficient.

Wicker said the MVA and DBED have control over the advertisements mailed with the vehicle registration forms. Under terms of its agreement with Imagitas, she said, the state "has strict control over the privacy of our database. The mailing list can't be sold." She said vendors also are prohibited from contacting people receiving the mailings.

Wicker said about 178,000 renewal forms have been mailed thus far. "We have received less than a half-dozen complaints," she said.

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