Philip Anschutz is best known in Los Angeles as the absentee owner of downtown’s Staples Center and the L.A. Live entertainment complex. But the Colorado billionaire is also founder of The Foundation For a Better Life, a nationwide non-profit that makes extensive use of billboards for the display of messages promoting “inspirational” values such as courage, compassion, and responsibility, among others.
The foundation’s website has a section called “Pass It On Sightings” that encourages people who see the billboards to snap photos and upload them, along with their names and brief comments. More than 100 such photos are currently posted, from places as diverse as New York’s Times Square; Butte, Montana, and Egg Harbor City, New Jersey.
The above-pictured billboard using an iconic image of Mr. Rogers to extol the value of “Friendship” was taken in Reseda on an unknown date. The accompanying comment by a person named “Tamera” is worth reading without any editing or paraphrasing:
I was beging for money so I can feed my family today and pay for bus fare to get my son to school all next week. And realized there in Reseda California was this sign. And I thought to myself I wish I could have brought with from Pocatello Idaho the friendship that was part of that community with me to LA. I wish I could make friends here and how much I miss being able to reach out to a neighbor for sugar when I had none, a hand when I was down, and paying customers in my business. Yet I sit here homeless with a preteen and partner. Livin in an motorhome unable to get a job despite the degrees. I could sure us a friends hand and I am a great friend too. An Auspirgers struggling family in seek of friends and community.
Which brings us to the juxtaposition of Tamera’s photo with the Bud Light billboard at the edge of L.A. Live, which is owned by Anschutz’s eponymous company, AEG. Budweiser is one of AEG’s sponsors, and ads for its products are prominently displayed throughout the complex, including an 18-story high Bud Light sign on the side of the upscale and city-subsidized JW Marriott Hotel.
There is no way to know, from Tamera’s comments, the reasons she (or he) is homeless. But a 2008 survey of major cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that substance abuse, including alcohol dependence, was the single largest cause of homelessness. It is also beyond question that alcohol abuse not only causes serious problems for individuals and families, but burdens local governments with huge costs.
The Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog organization, puts the price tag for government agencies in Los Angeles County at $2.2 billion annually to deal with alcohol-related death and illness, traffic accidents, injuries, and crime. The bulk of that figure, obtained from analysis of data provided by the agencies, can be attributed to crimes like homicide, rape, and assault.
The Bud Light and Budweiser billboards are visible to pedestrians, motorists on the streets and freeway, and to adults and children living in the apartments and houses in the working-class Latino neighborhood across the freeway from the L.A. Live complex. The downtown area is also home to the largest homeless population in the city, as well as the largest number of people suffering from acute alcohol abuse.
The alcohol industry typically responds to calls to limit such alcohol advertising with claims that there isn’t any evidence that ads lead to increased drinking or abuse of alcohol. A number of studies have shown that this isn’t true, particularly when it comes to drinking by members of minority groups and those who are underaged.
As mentioned above, one of the “values” listed by the Foundation For a Better Life is “Responsibility,” defined as “Responsibility is to be accountable for your actions.” Perhaps Anschutz, who endowed the foundation with $700 million of his fortune, might think about those words, was well as the enormous distance between the feel-good platitudes on the foundation’s billboards and the realities of everyday life for a person who lives in a motorhome and has to beg for money to buy food.
And perhaps our elected officials, many of whom have jumped on the bandwagon for AEG’s proposed NFL stadium next door to L.A. Live, might consider the extensive amount of billboards and signage proposed for the outside of the stadium and an expanded convention center, and think about what might be displayed on those signs.Dennis Hathaway