On my way to the post office last summer, I stopped at a red light and glanced at the license plate on the black Dodge Caravan in front of me.
It said HELP KEY, which I recognized as the name of a computer repair shop in Port Washington, Wis., where I live.
I made a mental note: Call the company to see if it can unravel the mess of computer wires under my desk and perform that routine maintenance I've been putting off.
The next day, owner Andy Bretl made a house call and fixed the problems. I'm now a regular customer. But I might never have called had I not seen his license plate.
I'm not alone.
Bretl says as much as 20 percent of his business comes from people who see his vanity plate or the large decals he applied to the outside of his van.
"I read license plates and I think most people do," Bretl says. "Being in a small town like we are, it's one more way for people to recognize you."
Vanity plates, which include a combination of as many as seven letters or numerals, usually cost an extra $10 to $75, depending on the state or province where you buy them. That makes the plates one of the most inexpensive marketing tools you can use to brand your business.
When Bretl goes to church on Sunday morning, he parks his van in the spot closest to the street, where people can see the plate when they drive in, he says. "That's actually worked for me, too, to bring in more business."
Sandy Johnson of Minneapolis, a presentation consultant and self-described "whiz at PowerPoint," reports similar results. The owner of a financial services company saw Johnson's license plate, PPTWIZ, at her son's after-school soccer game and asked her about it.
"I ended up working with him on the company's presentation program," she says. "It was a two- to three-year relationship."
Six years ago, a survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimated that more than 9 million cars in the United States had vanity plates. Since then, cash-strapped states have discovered that the plates can be an easy revenue source.
Texas, for example, held the state's first vanity plate auction four years ago. It sold plates reading "PORSCHE" for $7,500 and "AMERICA" for $3,000. It hopes to raise $25 million from similar auctions over the next several years.
In Quebec, drivers will be allowed to buy vanity plates next September. The province expects to sell about 80,000 plates.
Dennis Cowhey, author of the book What Does It Mean -- The Personal Stories Behind Vanity License Plates, says business people have used all sorts of creative combinations of numerals and letters to let the world know what they do. Here are examples from his book:
In Cincinnati, a doll store owner claimed DOLL4U. Entrepreneur Bob Schlaf put N3PNUR on his Hawaiian plates. Chris Ferro, owner of Pen-Den Marketing in Illinois, chose the simple and practical PEN DEN.
Other plates Cowhey has found include UA PILOT for a United Airlines pilot.
Then there was MTN VET for a mountain veterinarian and PET REP for a representative selling pet supplies.
An account executive at a bank who denies loans claimed I DENY U.
A urologist has the plate PEPE DOC and a pizza shop selected HV A SLCE.
All are more clever, he said, than his own plate D COWHEY.
Vanity plates can do more than just make you smile.
Caroline Adams Miller, a performance coach from Bethesda, Md., says a vanity license plate can contribute to your success. She wrote Creating Your Best Life, an evidence-based book on how to set and accomplish goals and its intersection with happiness. She did copious research on "priming," the many ways that something like a word, song, tattoo or a vanity license plate can lead to certain behaviors that help or hurt people purse their goals.
Miller, who holds a master's degree in applied positive psychology, encourages her clients to invest in a vanity plate that reminds them of their values. Using priming words like "happy," "nice," "blessed" and "beloved" on a plate can inspire a positive attitude and self-esteem.
"The moments you spend being 'primed' to think or act a certain way can lead you in certain directions," she says.
Miller has become such a vanity plate devotee that she refers to herself as "the license plate lady" and is always on the prowl for uplifting vanity plates she can add to her list.
Her own plate, WEHVFUN, encourages her to not take herself too seriously. "I remind myself to be happy because all success in life is preceded by being happy first," she says.