Clear Channel, Outdoor Advertising, and the Cult of John Wooden

Many reams of newsprint and hours of air time have been devoted to John Wooden since the former UCLA basketball coach died two weeks ago.  Now Clear Channel is getting a piece of the action by displaying “Woodenisms” on a network of more than 70 digital billboards throughout Los Angeles.

By all accounts Wooden was an excellent coach and exemplary person who had a knack for inspiring his players and any number of others with a philosophy that equated success with putting forth one’s best effort and valuing character over reputation.  This philosophy was most often expressed in aphoristic terms, of a nuance and complexity suitable for locker room chalkboards, or in the case at hand, digital billboards.

The sheer outpouring of eulogy, encomium, and what might be described as a kind of sanctification, raises a question:  What if Wooden’s UCLA teams hadn’t won 10 national titles, or 88 straight games?  What if those teams had been mediocre, or even perpetual losers?  Would those “Woodenisms” which frequently fail to rise above the level of platitude be beamed for eight seconds every minute to drivers on L.A. thoroughfares?

But then, how are those questions relevant to the issue of whether the city’s visual landscape should be regarded as a canvas for commercial advertising, or if public space ought to be valued for more than its utility as a venue for the promotion and marketing of goods and services?

Because advertising, and in particular, outdoor advertising, is about seizing opportunities to demonstrate that it is a public-spirited enterprise, always ready with displays of altruism that belie the image of a coldly calculating corporate heart.  Thus, Clear Channel billboards helped save Cahuenga peak,  Lamar Advertising billboards help the FBI catch cold-blooded criminals, CBS Outdoor billboards promote energy conservation.  And so forth, always loudly trumpeted in press releases and faux-news stories in advertising publications so that nobody will fail to get the message.

But like billboards themselves, which often show a bright, shiny face but have a rusty, graffiti-ridden backside, there’s another side to the feel-good story.  Clear Channel had no qualms about adding a “Save Cahuenga Peak” message to the ad rotation on its digital billboards in L.A, but when a gay rights organization in Florida paid for space and submitted ad copy showing two men in a mild display of affection, the company got cold feet and said no, ostensibly because of concern with their reputation among those to whom gay rights are anathema.

And back in L.A., how did Clear Channel respond to a city transportation official’s view that a digital billboard forming the background for a traffic signal was dangerous?  By doing nothing.  How did Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor respond to complaints that the bright, constantly-changing light from certain digital billboards was flashing in windows and disturbing peoples’ sleep and general peace of mind?  By doing nothing.

And how did those companies get the right to put up those digital billboards in the first place?  By engineering a closed-door deal with an ethically-challenged city attorney and a clueless city council that so completely bypassed required public process that a judge last year consigned the deal to the trash after tagging it with the epithet  “poison.”  By suing the city repeatedly, even to the point of trying to stop public disclosure of its billboard locations.  By putting up illegal signs and taking them down only after threats by the new city attorney.

Which brings us back to John Wooden, and the appropriation of his image as a revered wise man to burnish a multi-billion dollar billboard company’s  own image.  An aphorism attributed to him goes like this.  “Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights.”

Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor, Lamar Advertising, the others in the outdoor advertising industry assert their right to fill the public space of the city with sales pitches, as long as nobody is likely to take offense at the content of those messages, which regularly push liquor, sex, and violent entertainment.  As for the persons who see those images outside their living room windows, or have to keep their blinds closed all night and still are disturbed in their sleep, well, we all get to see Coach Wooden’s sagacity repeated over and over again.

And that aphoristic wisdom, which has everything to do with individuals striving for themselves and their teams, yields little to help address such barriers to success and satisfaction as racism, homophobia, poverty, and the fluid but distinct lines of class.  As such, it fits the advertising paradigm, with its jingles and catchphrases carefully designed to create desire for the things placed within our view and the illusion that we can be as happy and satisfied as the beautiful people smiling down at us.

In a press release, Layne Lawson, director of public affairs for Clear Channel Outdoor, said that Wooden was a personal inspiration in his own life, which included experience as a high school sports coach.  There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of that statement.  But Lawson goes on to say,  “Using our displays to keep Coach Wooden’s philosophy and wisdom fresh in the minds of Angelenos is just one way for us to give something back to our Southern California community.”

This comes just weeks after Clear Channel and other outdoor advertising companies mounted an all-out challenge to a bill in the state legislature that would, for the first time, have levied significant penalties on sign companies that illegally erect or alter their billboards.  As part of a  blatant disinformation campaign that ultimately killed the bill, Clear Channel and others convinced a number of non-profit organizations to testify that the bill would harm them because the companies might have to stop giving them free space on their billboards.

How to deal with the deceptions of deep-pocketed corporate interests that hold sway in the legislative chambers?  Do your best and maintain good character?

Dennis Hathaway

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