Pimps and Prostitutes: Billboard Companies Using Non-Profits to Help Kill Unfavorable Legislation

Public service ad on CBS Outdoor billboard. The sign on the opposite side advertises McDonald's "Angus Third Pounder"

When a bill to put a little bite into California’s toothless billboard regulations came before the State Senate last week, the usual suspects—big billboard companies, chambers of commerce, construction interests—lined up to oppose it.  But also signing on to help kill the bill were such organizations as the National Council of Jewish Women, the Minorities in Broadcasting Training Program, and the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association.

The bill, sponsored by L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and introduced by State Sen. Mark Leno, would have closed a loophole in state law that allows a company that gets caught illegally erecting or modifying a billboard to bring it into compliance and thus become eligible for monetary compensation if the billboard’s property is needed for highway widening or some other public works project.  The change in the law would also have provided, for the first time, a deterrent to companies illegally erecting or modifying billboards by levying fines and requiring disgorgement of revenue unlawfully earned.

So why would non-profit groups representing genuine social interests oppose a change in state law that applies the same standards to the outdoor advertising industry that other businesses and individuals in the state must operate under?  Because the billboard industry donates free space to these organizations, and it calls in the chips, so to speak, whenever there is a threat of unfavorable action by a legislative body.

The bill fell short of passage.  The billboard industry mounted a shameless disinformation campaign to defeat it, and some senators got on board by claiming that it was an anti-jobs and anti-business bill, even though it was strictly limited to addressing the issue of illegality.

This isn’t the first time non-profits have done the bidding of billboard companies.  Just to give one unsavory example, when neighborhood groups and the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight challenged the legality of permits issued to digital billboards in L.A.’s Westwood area last year, persons speaking on behalf of non-profits came to commission hearings to plead the case of billboard giants Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor, even though a Superior Court judge had ruled that the city acted illegally in allowing conventional billboards to be converted to digital.

Did these persons care that people in homes next-door to these billboards were plagued by the brilliant, ever-changing light, and the noise from cooling fans?  Apparently not, as long as they could count on getting one of the eight-second spots for their cause.

The vote on the bill, SB1470, was 14-20.  Senators representing parts of the city of L.A. voted as follows:

For:  Fran Pavley, District 23; Carol Liu, District 21

Opposed:  Gil Cedillo, District 22; Roderick Wright, District 25

Not Voting:  Jenny Oropeza, District 28; Alex Padilla, District 20; Curren Price, District 26

For more on the bill, see:  California should act to regulate outdoor advertising

Dennis Hathaway

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