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Saturday, February 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Postal service will sell ad space

Los Angeles Times

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WASHINGTON - Neither rain nor sleet nor snow will keep the U.S. Postal Service from delivering the mail, and under a new policy, the agency will deliver the advertising messages of big companies willing to pay the price.

Stung by budget deficits and growing competition from e-mail and private delivery companies, the Postal Service is embarking on an aggressive campaign to sell advertising space on the sides of its delivery trucks, collection boxes, priority envelopes and in post-office lobbies.

Stamps are not for sale, but the covers of stamp booklets are up for grabs. The postal service might even allow advertisers to include their message on postmarks, such as the "Happy Who-lidays" postmark that was tested last Christmas to promote Universal Studios' film, "The Grinch."

Postal officials say the marketing deals could reap as much as $200 million a year.

After test trials last fall and winter with Universal and Visa USA, the postal service cut its first deal in December with Internet giant America Online, which bought space on about 10,000 delivery trucks in 11 major markets. Other deals are expected to be announced soon, according to postal officials, who say they hope to compete with traditional media outlets for the advertising dollars of Fortune 500 corporations.

"We want to show that you can put more than a picture of an eagle on the side of a postal vehicle," said John Ward, vice president of core business marketing for the postal service. "By using our assets creatively, we hope to bring in additional revenue and keep prices low."

The postal service's army of 200,000 delivery trucks likely will generate about half the expected revenue, although only about 25,000 vehicles circulate in neighborhoods or business districts busy enough to support ads, Ward said. That boils down to about $330 a month per truck, or less than the cost of buying a placard on the side of most city buses.

Ads on about 40,000 collection boxes in high-traffic areas will appear as soon as next month, although Ward declined to name potential advertisers or say how much the ads would cost.

Gary Ruskin, a frequent critic of the commercialization of public property and proliferation of advertising, said it was inappropriate for the government to help hawk soda pop and credit cards.

"The government should not be for sale," said Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert in Washington, D.C. "How far will this go? It's a slippery slope. Will the Postmaster General allow some advertiser to tattoo a message on his forehead for $100,000?"

Surveys showed that consumers were willing to accept ads if it meant that prices could be kept low, Ward said.

But price rises could occur anyway. Faced with a $200 million deficit in 2000, the Postal Service is scrambling to finds ways to cope with the slowdown in first-class mail delivery.

Growing use of the Internet and e-mail is contributing to what could be the first decline in first-class mail volume. Experts say volume will fall an average of 3.6 percent a year beginning in 2004.

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