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Two Steps Back – No on Prop D in SF

Thanks to Anti-Advertising Agency’s Legal Analyst, Paul S., for weighing in on this controversial ballot measure in San Francisco…

San Francisco has a proposition on the ballot today which seeks to blow a huge hole in the city’s municipal billboard ban. Proposition D, if passed, will allow high definition electronic billboards to be placed on buildings down Market Street between 5th and 7th Streets. The proposition would allow building owners to avoid two anti-billboard ordinances. The first, passed in 1970, banned advertising along the downtown portion of mid-Market, and the other, passed in 2002, which banned new billboards throughout the city.

What Proposition D would allow, is a ribbon of huge lighted billboards to wrap all the way down Market Street. The proposition is very loosely worded, and essentially would allow unregulated erection of the billboards. Prop D’s language says the billboard can be “flashing, blinking or rotating” with the only limitation that they cannot rotate or spin faster than once every four seconds. The signs can also be located 25 feet above the roof-line… and therefore visible throughout the city. Also notable is that there is no limit to the number of billboards which could be erected.

The purported idea behind the proposition is that the new massive electronic billboards will somehow magically re-vitalize an area of the city that has been blighted for decades. How, is not exactly clear. Supporters (i.e. building owners) say that the billboards will drive foot traffic and increase business. However, what is more likely is that the eyesores will drive people away from the already depressed area. Make no mistake, Proposition D is not about re-vitalizing Market Street, it is about enriching the current slum-lord owners of the dilapidated buildings in the area. Currently, a single printed sign on a Market street kiosk sells for $210,000 a month. Just estimate the income from an electronic flashing and blinking 500 square-foot billboard, visible throughout the city.

What is clear, is that the city leaders have completely run out of ideas. A majority of the city council has endorsed the proposition, as has the mayor. The city previously spent over a decade on a redevelopment plan for the area, which was stymied by gridlock in city hall. There is no doubt that the area targeted by Proposition D is the definition of urban blight. Porn theaters, drug dealers, methadone clinics, and flop houses line the streets.

The situation on Market Street is a serious urban problem. There appears to be such a dearth of ideas coming from city hall, that a ludicrous proposition like this one actually can get serious support. If this proposition passes, the city will most certainly be poorer, and the slum-lords will most certainly be very, very rich. And there’s no provision for removing the signs when the effort fails.

Let’s hope Proposition D goes down in flames at the ballot box today.

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The next frontier for ads – Your geometry quiz

From that bastion of hard-hitting reporting, The USA Today, we get this piece on the pitiful state of our public schools.

So when administrators at Rancho Bernardo, his suburban San Diego high school, announced the district was cutting spending on supplies by nearly a third, Farber had a problem. At 3 cents a page, his tests would cost more than $500 a year. His copying budget: $316. But he wanted to give students enough practice for the big tests they’ll face in the spring, such as the Advanced Placement exam.

Tough times call for tough actions,” he says. So he started selling ads on his test papers: $10 for a quiz, $20 for a chapter test, $30 for a semester final.

That worries Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based non-profit that fights commercialization in school and elsewhere. If test-papers-as-billboards catches on, he says, schools in the grip of tough economic times could start relying on them to help the bottom line.

“The advertisers are paying for something, and it’s access to kids,” he says.

About two-thirds of Farber’s ads are inspirational messages underwritten by parents. Others are ads for local businesses, such as two from a structural engineering firm and one from a dentist who urges students, “Brace Yourself for a Great Semester!”

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Billboard industry gums up anti-blight enforcement in S.F.

The city of San Francisco has been slowly working to enforce a 2002 city proposition which banned new billboards on private property. Of course, we all know city governments are notoriously cash-strapped. So it comes as no surprise that it was only in 2007 that the city had completed a survey of the existent billboards in order to begin enforcement.

Now, the city has three full time people working on the code-enforcement detail stopping illegal billboards. Unfortunately, San Franciscans who don’t want to be bombarded with billboards across the city-scape have a new problem to contend with… the billboard industry’s legal team.

As this article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle explains, although the city has issued citations in over 250 cases, almost none of the fines have been paid by the billboard owners.

According to city Planning Department officials, a three-person enforcement team has located more than 250 illegal billboards and sought fines against the company owners and landlords totaling about $1.5 million.

Only $50,500 of that has been collected, however, in part because the majority of the fines are tied up in unresolved legal actions.

“We’re trying to stop any new billboards from going up and finding the ones that have been put up without permits,” said Dan Sider, the city planner in charge of the program. “Outdoor advertising is a lucrative industry, so the companies are hiring very skilled lawyers who are waging legal challenges.”

It didn’t take long for the outdoor advertising industry, which handles $7.2 billion in business each year, to file legal challenges. Two cases recently argued in Los Angeles federal district court may not bode well for San Francisco. In both cases – which are now pending at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – the district courts ruled that restrictions on billboards are not enforceable because they violated the Constitution.

In one case, the court ruled that Los Angeles created a double standard by restricting private advertising signs, but simultaneously sold ad space on bus shelters and other public places.

“It’s a violation of the First Amendment if the city allows some signs, but not others without justification,” said Rex Heinke, a Los Angeles attorney, who is representing a company in one of the Los Angeles cases.

I guess we’ll have to see what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (also located in San Francisco) has to say about this issue. Once again the business interests fall back on the First Amendment to purportedly protect their trampling on the public’s enjoyment of a blight-free public space. Of course, the First Amendment, as any grade school kid will tell you, is the right to free speech enshrined in the Constitution. However, the right is not absolute, but rather elastic. It applies absolutely to some speech and less so to others. The most protected is political speech, while commercial speech requires much less deference. It remains to be seen how much import the judges on the Ninth Circuit will attach to visual clutter…

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Giant floating bubbles?

Update: here’s a video we found on youtube (which doesn’t seem top-secret)

Are we one step close to a Blade Runner-style dystopian future in which giant blimps float over our city-scapes broadcasting advertising? Well, that might be a bit extreme, but we certainly are a at the point where modern science as seen fit to bestow on us the joys of the floating soap bubble advertisement. No really. Someone has made a machine which somehow creates long lasting gigantic soap bubbles which can be formed into set shapes. Seriously…

Picture the Manhattan skyline filled with Nike swooshes. Or the golden arches of McDonald’s gently drifting over Los Angeles.

A special-effects entrepreneur from Alabama has come up with a way to fill the sky with foamy clouds as big as 4 feet across and shaped like corporate logos – Flogos, as he calls them.

Francisco Guerra, who’s also a former magician, developed a machine that produces tiny bubbles filled with air and a little helium, forms the foam into shapes and pumps them into the sky.

The Walt Disney Co. will use one of the machines next month to send clouds shaped like Mickey Mouse heads into the air at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Guerra said.

“It’s a shock factor when you look up and there’s a logo over your head,” said Guerra, whose company, SnowMasters Inc., makes machines that churn out fake snow and foam for Hollywood movies and special events.

A single Flogo can travel as far as 30 miles and as high as 20,000 feet, Guerra says, and a machine can produce one every 15 seconds. Guerra says he could put a half-dozen machines together and fill the sky with almost any shape a company orders.

Imagine a line of drifting Flogos shaped like the Honda logo leading to a car dealership and you get the idea.

You can find out more about this company and how these things work here.

So can anything be done about floating bubble billboards? From the article I quoted above, it looks like the F.A.A. might try to regulate them as some sort of an air hazard. Otherwise, I doubt any municipality has any laws against such a thing on the books. I guess this image might be something to watch out for if this catches on…

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