Up until two years ago, this Louisiana-based billboard company had virtually no presence in L.A., although it was the largest owner of billboards nationwide. Then it shelled out $100 million for Vista Media, a company with some 4,000 signs, and just like that became the largest owner of billboards in L.A. Now it wants to trade all of those signs—remove them, in other words—for the right to put up brand new billboards, some digital, and many on city-owned property in exchange for the payment of a fee to fatten starving city coffers.
What’s wrong with this idea, put forth by Lamar and brought to the council floor by Councilman Richard Alarcon, who sees a rosy future of jobs and revenue in those shiny new billboards? For starters, this wildly ill-advised plan would constitute a death sentence for billboard control in the city, but that’s the subject of another article. For the moment, let’s elbow past the public relations blitz that Lamar and Alarcon have mounted, and look at the details the way everyone should, which is to say with a heavily jaundiced eye..
One, the billboards Lamar inherited from Vista Media are to the billboards the company wants to put up as a Rolls Royce is to a well-worn Volkswagen bug. While the new billboards would be “bulletin” size—14 x 48 ft.—the billboards to be removed are almost all 6 x 12 ft.—known in the trade as “8 sheet posters.” Furthermore, many of these “posters” are dilapidated, rusted, devoid of ad copy, and it is likely that the company intended all along to get rid of them, using the Vista Media purchase as an entry into the L.A. Market.
That’s not simply conjecture. In a conference call earlier this year with financial analysts, Lamar CEO Kevin Reilly talked about a “takedown program” and the process of getting rid of “non-performing units” in order to bolster the company’s bottom line, which has been in precarious shape. In another call last year, Reilly told analysts that at least 15 per cent of the company’s inventory of billboards was “underwater”—not bringing in enough revenue to cover the payments to property owners.
Councilman Alarcon is absolutely right when he says these dilapidated billboards with tattered, months-old ad copy are blighting neighborhoods in his district. But what is the city’s proper response to eyesore properties that are essentially abandoned? Cite the owners—in this case, a corporate behemoth with more than $1 billion in annual revenue—and require that the nuisance be abated, or dangle a carrot that isn’t a carrot at all, but a 24-carat, gold-plated gift that will keep on giving for years to come.
What else is wrong? How about the math, which nobody in Alarcon’s office seems to have done? The company is proposing to take down 4,000 of their billboards in exchange for the right to put up 450 full-sized “bulletin” billboards. A quick turn with the calculator shows that the 4,000 signs represent less than 300,000 sq. ft. of advertising space, while the 450 signs represent 302,000v sq. ft. of space. (Note: Lamar Advertising has been asked to provide exact numbers and sizes of the billboards to be taken down)
Put those figures together with the fact that most of the 4,000 billboards are rundown, in bad locations, non-performing, and that the 450 billboards will be in prime, high-traffic, high-visibility places, with 50 the high-profit digital kind, and one can only be baffled that the Lamar people who brought the proposal to the city weren’t laughed right out of city hall.
But no, they weren’t laughed at, they weren’t accused of insulting the intelligence of the public, they were embraced, treated as benefactors, at least by Councilman Alarcon.
If that isn’t bad enough for everyone, there’s the company itself, which appears to operate across the country as a kind of wrecking ball aimed at local sign ordinances that get in the way of putting up new billboards. In Pittsburgh, a Lamar executive gave Christmas gifts to a zoning official who approved an 1,100 sq. ft. electronic billboard without any public hearing, and now the company is seeking $1 million in damages because the city revoked the permit. In Albany, New York, the company is suing the city in an effort to put up 13 billboards, even though ordinances allow only eight. It sued the city of Knoxville, Tennessee because the city ordinance didn’t allow digital billboards. It sued the city of Monroeville, Pennsylvania, because the city required a conditional use permit for converting conventional billboards to digital. It is suing Cook County, Illinois, to be allowed to put up digital billboards where none exist. It is suing Detroit because the city attempted to levy an annual fee on billboards.
Claims that billboard regulation is an unconstitutional infringement of free speech resonate through such lawsuits. When it comes to accepting or rejecting ad copy, however, the company doesn’t stand so fastidiously on principle. In Hartford, Connecticut, an arts organization contracted for space on three billboards, but when the company saw the artwork that would be displayed—same-sex couples in photographs holding hands—it said, sorry, we’re not going to be able to allow that. In Georgia, a group called Georgia Equality attempted to rent a billboard to run an ad for lesbian and gay rights, but again Lamar said no dice. However, in Pharr, Texas, one of its billboards displayed a buxom lady and the message, “I’ll Be Your Play Bunny” along a telephone number. When some people complained that such a billboard wasn’t suitable to be seen by children, a Lamar spokesperson was quoted as saying that the company allowed anyone to advertise on its billboards as long as the copy was in “good taste.”
“Good taste” is a debatable quality, of course. What isn’t, or shouldn’t be debatable, is that any acceptance of the rotten fish Lamar is attempting to sell to Los Angeles would leave a very bad taste in the mouths of everyone who cares about fairness, good policy, and the city’s visual environment.
To see Lamar Advertising Billboard Reduction Proposal and Councilman Alarcon’s Motion, click here.Dennis Hathaway