Students coming to Animo Venice Charter High school by bus from areas like Inglewood and South L.A. get off at a stop on Venice Blvd. and walk a half mile north on Lincoln Blvd. to the school campus. One a recent school day, this is what they’d have seen on their way to morning classes.
First, a bus shelter ad for the new James Bond movie, Spectre, featuring actor Daniel Craig holding a gun as if he is prepared to do business with it. A few blocks further, a 600 sq. ft. billboard ad for New Amsterdam vodka, featuring a Marilyn Monroe look-alike who appears to be engaged in some serious partying. And, just a block-and-a-half from the school, signs for Marlboro and Camel Crush cigarettes at the edge of a 7-Eleven parking lot, placed as closely as possible to the sidewalk without actually impinging on the public space.
The students on foot and the people in cars creeping along highly-congested Lincoln Blvd are not the only audiences for the signs. Across the street from the bus shelter is a Boys & Girls Club. Three quarters of a block up the street is a church, and across the street from the church is a preschool. Those institutions are just 400 ft. from that Clear Channel billboard with the vodka bottle and model with her mouth open wide and bare arms thrust into the air.
Of course, the students and others don’t always see these pitches for alcohol, tobacco, and action movies with lots of gunplay. Ads change. Over the past several years, the Clear Channel billboard has displayed ads for Beck’s beer, for the TV show “The Strain” with the notorious image of a worm crawling out of woman’s eyeball, and for the online video streaming site “Crackle” with an image of a woman holding a smoking gun.
The billboard has a valid permit but is 10 ft. higher than allowed by the permit, according to city inspection records. Which means, of course, that it can be seen from a greater distance by motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians on that busy thoroughfare.
Lest anyone wonder about the relevance of the 400 ft. distance, Clear Channel is a member of the Outdoor Advertising Association of American (OAAA), which has “Code of Industry Principles” stating, among other things, the following:
We are committed to a program that establishes exclusionary zones that prohibit stationary advertisements of products illegal for sale to minors that are intended to be read from, at least 500 feet of, elementary and secondary schools, public playgrounds, and established places of worship.
Nothing about this is surprising. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that 37 per cent of outdoor ads for alcohol and 25 per cent for tobacco were located within 500 ft. of a school, playground, or church in Los Angeles. But the OAAA does say that its “Code of Industry Principles” are voluntary, and there’s plenty of evidence that L.A.’s big three billboard companies—Clear Channel, Outfront Media, and Lamar Advertising—have chosen to ignore them.
There’s also plenty of evidence that the billboard company clients—corporate purveyors of alcohol, fast food, soda, violent movies—design many of their ads to appeal to young people like the students who walk Lincoln Blvd to and from high school each day in Venice.
The First Amendment’s free speech guarantee means that billboards on private property are free to display almost anything in ads, no matter how distasteful, harmful, or otherwise antithetical to a community’s physical and mental health. Fortunately, cities are also allowed to limit the number of billboards, or even prohibit them altogether, and many have done so.
Los Angeles made at attempt in this direction in 2002, when it banned new off-site signs, i.e, those advertising products and services not available on that site. Unfortunately, that ban was riddled with exceptions and proved vulnerable to legal attack. And Clear Channel and the other billboard companies are still lobbying city hall and going to court for the right to put up new billboards, especially the digital variety.
And a final thought: Did anyone at Clear Channel or the ad agency or the company producing New Amsterdam Vodka think about the propriety of using a blonde Marilyn Monroe type to market booze, given that serious addictions to alcohol and drugs likely contributed to cutting short that actress’s life?
The following is a sample of studies by researchers at UCLA, USC and elsewhere into the links between outdoor advertising and public health. (click on title to read full report)
Clustering of unhealthy outdoor advertisements around child-serving institutions: A comparison of three cities. UCLA School of Public Health, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, American University: This study of outdoor advertisement in Los Angeles, Austin, and Philadelphia found that unhealthy ads—alcohol, junk food, depictions of violence—were clustered around child-serving institutions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. It concluded that zoning and land use regulations should protect children from unhealthy commercial messages, particularly in neighborhoods with racial/ethnic minority populations.
The Prevalence of Harmful Content on Outdoor Advertising in Los Angeles: Land Use, Community Characteristics, and the Spatial Inequality of a Public Health Nuisance. American Journal of Public Health, April 2014. | This year-long study of billboard advertising in seven selected areas of Los Angeles found that at-risk communities and communities of color hosted more harmful content—alcohol, fast food and soda, gambling, gun-related violence, and sexism—than more affluent communities.
Outdoor advertising, obesity, and soda consumption: A cross-sectional study. Lenard Lesser, Frederick J. Zimmerman, and Deborah A. Cohen. BMC Public Health, 2013. | This study by researchers at UCLA, the Rand Corporation, and Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute of 220 census tracts in Los Angeles and New Orleans found a strong correlation between the percentage of outdoor advertising promoting unhealthy food and beverages and the rate of obesity among residents of those tracts.
A Cross-Sectional Prevalence Study of Ethnically Targeted and General Audience Outdoor Obesity-Related Advertising. UCLA, Johns Hopkins University, University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania, American University, Public Health Institute, California Dept. of Public Health: | This study of areas offering contrasts of income and ethnicity in Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; New York City; and Philadelphia found that low-income and ethnic minority communities were disproportionately exposed to outdoor advertising for fast food, soda and other products that can promote obesity.
Alcohol and tobacco marketing: An evaluation of compliance with restrictions on outdoor ads. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Sept. 2008. This study of 114 census tracts in Los Angeles found that 37 per cent of alcohol ads and 25 per cent of tobacco ads were located within 500 feet of a school, playground, or church.Dennis Hathaway