Billboard watchdogs clean up skylines
Aiming to clear out commercial clutter, billboard watchdogs from Rio to Toronto police outdoor ads.
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“Business entities have First Amendment rights just like individuals do,” says Eric Rubin, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who represents outdoor advertisers. “They’re clearly articulated by the US Supreme Court.” He points to the “Hillary” case: In 2008, Citizens United released a movie that cast Hillary Rodham Clinton in an unflattering light. At issue: Whether corporations have the right to political free speech, or whether that speech – in this case a movie – is subject to regulation by the Federal Election Commission. (The Supreme Court reheard the case Sept. 9.) “Every day, commercial entities assert their First Amendment rights,” says Mr. Rubin.
Industry advocates also argue that conveying information to consumers is necessary for the greater economic good. “Signs are [a way] to obtain information about brands, products, and goods and services,” says Mr. Golimowski.
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Antibillboard groups say it’s more complicated. Billboards derive value from proximity to public thoroughfares; as in all advertising, the viewer’s attention is the commodity sold to the advertiser. Historically, advertising helped pay for something – newspapers, television, radio – in exchange for this access. But billboards offer nothing in return, argues James Twitchell, a retired professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “When you’re getting into my face and you’re not also improving my life in some way, then there’s no equitable argument,” he says.
Some find the “free speech” argument equally wanting. In a 2003 ruling in a Miami District Court, the judge wrote:
“[A]dvertising companies transform the proverbial First Amendment shield, intended to protect noncommercial speech, into a sword that assures their commercial well-being.”
Then there’s what Tabello and others characterize as the outdoor advertising industry’s disregard for the law. Industry associations insist that any illegal signs are due to inconsistent and outdated bylaws, and not intentional. But a New York district judge wrote earlier this year that the billboard industry regularly takes advantage of lax enforcement and ignores regulations. In 2007, Les Abro, CEO of Abcon Media, a Toronto-based billboard company, admitted as much in an interview with Canada’s Marketing Daily: “It’s widespread. It’s the nature of the beast – you either do it or you don’t do any business,” he said.
Fines levied against billboard companies are considered a cost of doing business, says William Brinton, a Florida attorney involved in more than 30 suits against billboard companies in the US. When challenged, the industry is quick to litigate – there are more than 100 cases pending nationwide, he says. Even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor heard a case from Orchard Park, N.Y., when she was on the Second District Court of Appeals. (Ultimately, Orchard Park prevailed: no billboards allowed.)
Tabello, who’s admired for his tenacity by anti-billboarders everywhere, sees the industry’s “flouting” of laws as its ultimate downfall: “When you’re doing something that’s not legitimate, you can’t expect it to go on forever.”