Saturday, April 12, 2008
A lot of people (like me) find billboards a hideous blight on our cities and our countryside. Billboards blot out the natural beauty and architecture of communities, assets that should be highlighted, not hidden behind ugly billboards. In urban centers they are actually little more than trash. Rather than going away, corporate America is coming up with new ways to make things worse. For example, some big companies have taken things a step further - they turn huge buildings into giant advertising graphics. As Spreading the News points out what happens is a marketing type company scouts for a space (a building) to "hit up", once found they contact the realtor or owner, persuades them for X amount of dollars to rent or lease the space, generates a large ugly digital print known as "supergraphics" and has them installed, on the building for us to be bombarded with its imagery and be seen every morning while we either drive to work or every evening while we drive home. Lucky us. But as ugly as giant billboards, there is another model that is growing much faster and is just as hideous and probably more dangerous. Growingly (that is not a word according to spellcheck, but I don't care) we are faced with digital signs that change about every few seconds. From Connecticut to California, digital billboards are becoming an increasingly hot issue as outdoor advertising companies seek to convert existing billboards to digital and erect new ones. Critics say they are a driving distraction and a neighborhood eyesore that should be forbidden. Scenic America, which is fighting to stop these digital eyesores says, "The biggest threat now facing America's communities and highways is the proliferation of digital billboards." In Detroit, its one such billboard in particular is taking some heat from locals. A billboard on Interstate 75 near 7 Mile in Detroit has some residents in the area very upset. They say the billboard is too bright and is making sleep impossible. "It drive me crazy at night. I live right here," said resident Audrey Watson. "It shines right here in my family room." Well, Audrey you aren't alone in your anti-billboard feelings. Some citizens of Los Angeles have had enough after documenting their fair town has 11,000 "points of blight" on local streets allowed by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council. It seems, too, any time any city has tried to limit and control what some call "litter on sticks," the billboard industry has fought hard to limit restrictions. Now, anti-billboard activists in LA have mounted a last-ditch effort to derail a proposal before the Los Angeles City Council that would place two 76-foot-tall billboards next to the 10 Freeway as part of an unusual trade-off to create a park in South Los Angeles. Although the double-faced billboards are planned for a gritty stretch of 16th Street near downtown Los Angeles, the proposal has drawn the ire of opponents in Westwood, Venice and Holmby Hills, who fear the decision will set a precedent -- clearing the way for towering signs at other freeway locations. "Once one billboard company gets this, then everybody will want the same thing, and there's no way you can stop that," said Ted Wu, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. In Long Beach, Calif., three neighborhood groups are fighting the construction of six digital billboards along local freeways; each sign would be 40 feet high, with a 30-by-20-foot screen. Members of the North Long Beach Action Group and the Bixby Knolls Improvement Association, believe the flashing signs would affect neighborhoods in North Long Beach, Bixby Knolls, just south of Long Beach Airport, and on the Westside. "Digital billboards of that size can be read from a quarter of a mile off the freeway," Martha Thuente, chair of the North Long Beach Project Area Committee told the Long Beach Press Telegram. "It destroys the visual aesthetics of an area." Though the industry claims billboards are essential providers of important information, polls reveal that they most people see them as ugly, intrusive, and uninformative. Between 1957 and 1977, at least eight polls found 70% or more of respondents to be anti-billboard. In the 1990s, pools found people in Florida, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Texas, Michigan, and Missouri all agreed that billboards are litter on a stick. In fact, virtually every credible poll that's been done reveals one fact: Americans do not like billboards. By a 10 to 1 margin, Floridians prefer reducing the number of billboards over further increases. 64% of the citizens in New Hampshire oppose to billboard advertising on highways, with 53% of total respondents strongly opposing billboards. 62% of Rhode Islanders state that billboards make state roads less attractive, as opposed to 31% who simply felt it made no difference. 96% of Houstonians believe it important to make major improvements in beautification of the city, and 79% of Houstonians support maintaining or strengthening the city's ordinance removing ALL billboards by 2013. 69% of Missourians believe that fewer billboards would make their state more attractive to tourists, while just 26% disagreed. Who likes these billboards anyway. Billboard companies and other advertisers - that's who. Says Paul Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Clear Channel Outdoor, "The more congested the area is, the more effective outdoor advertising can be." With TIVOS and VCRs allowing some of us the option to cut out TV ads, billboards are becoming ever more popular with the industry because even fickle viewers go outside --and find themselves often stuck in traffic when they do so -- so billboards are harder to avoid. There is no button to press that gets rid of them. The billboard companies do not exist nor multiply on their own. They are supported from local and multinational companies who use billboards as a cheap advertising alternative. And don't think the massive amounts of moola the industry puts into the pockets of local, state and national legislators doesn't pay off. Take Dayton, Ohio, for example. On February 6th the local billboard laws were gutted by the city commission. Despite citizen opposition the new changes to Dayton's zoning code regulating billboards means according to the blog Daytonology, "These monstrosities are going to go up as close as 500 feet apart in all these areas they were formerly outlawed: light industrial (I1), business park (BP) and eclectic commercial." Then there is the state of Tennessee. Gene Burr, an architect who serves on the board of Scenic Tennessee, wrote in the News Sentinel that Knox County, through its Board of Zoning Appeals, decided to permit digital billboards in response to a request from the billboard industry in May 2007. There was no public hearing, Burr said, and now there are three digital billboards in the county. Forget about Dayton and even the entire state of Tennessee if you want. You don't live there. Yeah, well, thirty-seven states fail to protect unzoned and rural areas, allowing companies to litter the countryside with signs; and 23 states permit billboard companies to cut down trees to improve the visibility of billboards. Maybe that bothers you. Spreading the News makes an interesting point: "Graffiti is always cast as an "urban blight" - but peeps, an ad where an almost nude 50 foot man in underwear advertising a cologne that I do not wear is an "urban blight" to me. Why would I want to see that? Do you enjoy it? I am sure most don't and like graffiti is to many a nuisance these corporate ads are a nuisance to many. To me at least." Maybe its time for a little more militant, a little more radical grassroots anti-billboard action. I'll leave it to you to come up with your own ideas about that. The following story is from the LA Times. Anti-billboard activists target multi-story 'supergraphics' Anti-billboard activists have a new target: multi-story "supergraphic" signs plastered illegally on about three dozen buildings citywide. A handful of West Los Angeles activists joined City Councilman Jack Weiss on West Pico Boulevard at Overland Avenue on Thursday morning to call for hefty fines against those who post the signs. Their backdrop: a Gap Inc. supergraphic with a blond model reclining across several stories of an office building in the 10000 block of West Pico Boulevard. The ad, which appeared in February, is a 60-foot-by-20-foot vinyl sheet stuck to the building, according to a lawyer for the company that negotiated a lease for the space. That's 1,200 square feet compared with about 750 square feet for a traditional billboard. A few blocks away, another supergraphic advertised "Dirt," the new Courteney Cox show on FX. Others elsewhere in the city tout Washington Mutual and Wachovia banks. "This is taking off because people are finding a way to get around our law," which prohibits new billboards, Weiss said, calling the ads "sneaky" and deriding the "shrink-wrapped buildings" as "urban blight." Companies that post the signs defend them as free speech and say city leaders are discriminating against them by forbidding supergraphics in some areas while allowing them in others, such as Hollywood. A lawyer for the Philadelphia-based company that posted the Gap sign, Worldwide Rush, said the company is contesting the city ban in federal court, arguing that it violates free speech. In areas where the signs are banned, code-enforcement officials typically cite companies, then go to court to have the ads taken down, a process that can take years. While the suits are pending, judges have barred the city from removing the supergraphics, said Nick Velasquez, a spokesman for the city attorney's office. "It's visual blight, a distraction to motorists, just treating the architecture of the city as a canvas," said Dennis Hathaway, a spokesman for the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. Weiss wants the city to enforce a law already on the books that allows it to levy $2,500-a-day fines. The fines apply not only to advertisers such as Gap -- which buy the signs -- but also to the sign companies that post them and the property owners who lease the space. The average supergraphic costs $20,000 to $200,000, depending on the size of the building, location (freeway proximity drives the price up), nearby businesses and other variables, said Matthew Cooper, a spokesman for Beverly Hills-based Skytag Inc. Cooper said all of his company's roughly 20 signs are in areas permitted by the city. "If it's done right, a highly pictorial ad with a nice creative [design] can add to the landscape," he said. "These people who just slap up these ads anywhere are giving us a bad name."
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