August 7th, 2007

Cities Draw Line on Risque Billboards

By Charisse Jones
USA Today

Mark Stevens has seen his website’s name in the clouds, if not exactly in lights: “www.YourMarketingSucks.com.”

The portal providing information about Stevens’ global marketing firm and his book by a similar name has been skywritten above Manhattan and printed on billboards from Atlanta to Dallas.

So he was surprised recently when he took a drive to see his latest billboard in New Rochelle, N.Y., and found it blank.

“I thought it was a mistake,” Stevens says. He called the company that leased him the billboard space and learned that the ad had been taken down because of complaints from local officials. “Where do you draw the line?” he says. “ … It’s like taking every newspaper in the country and burning it because you don’t like the headline.”

In several communities across the nation, residents and lawmakers are demanding that signs they find offensive be removed, actions that some advertisers say violate their free speech rights.

Courts have been divided when weighing city and state ordinances that prohibit billboards, require them to be a certain distance from a highway or impose other restrictions, says David Hudson, a scholar at the Nashville-based First Amendment Center, a forum for the study of free-expression issues.

“Commercial speech doesn’t receive as much protection as political speech,” says Hudson, who consistently sees advertisers challenging local efforts to regulate billboards. “The legal landscape is muddled enough that there are a lot of constitutional arguments that can be made, and I think that’s why you see decisions that go all over the place.”

Where there has been an outcry:

•Manhattan. A billboard that displayed bare bottoms with smiley faces never saw daylight when a judge in July temporarily blocked its installation after a complaint. The Times Square Church, housed inside the Midtown building where the sign would hang, objected to the advertisement for the “washlet,” a bidetlike device.

A compromise was reached, and a revised billboard went up July 27 featuring a wide, white bar covering the naked rumps. “We looked at this solely as a business matter,” says Lenora Campos, spokeswoman for Toto USA Inc., the Morrow, Ga., company that makes the washlet. “When the content of the billboard creates a distraction and draws attention away from our goals, it’s time to change the advertising.”

•Walls, Miss. The mayor of this town, near the Tennessee border southwest of Memphis, compromised in April with a strip club owner to replace a billboard that asked, “Got Boobs?” The message was on one of three signs along U.S. 61 that start with the question “Got Beer?” and ends with: “We have both. The Pony Club.” The new sign says, “Got …?” filling in the blank with two baseballs.

•Cincinnati. The city’s Hispanic chamber asked a radio station in May to remove 82 billboards that depicted a “Mexican” man wearing a fake mustache, poncho and sombrero and standing beside a donkey. The billboards read: “The Big Juan,” a twist on the slogan of WLW-AM, the area’s No. 1 station: “The Big One.”

Alfonso Cornejo, Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA board president, called it “a hateful campaign” that exploited a “crudely depicted ethnic stereotype.” A coalition of groups demanded a written apology. Within a week of the complaints, the signs were gone, and the radio’s general manager, Chuck Frederick, wrote to the chamber saying, “We regret any offense by our recent billboard advertising.”

Tobacco advertising on billboards once sparked the most community outrage. But that issue faded away when companies stopped advertising cigarettes on billboards as part of the industry’s landmark settlement in 1998.

The billboard industry in 2001 added an anti-obscenity clause to its code of principles, says Ken Klein, vice president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. “Some of the hot-button issues of the past have been taken off the table and the companies and operators are responsive to community standards,” Klein says.

In Walls, Mayor Gene Alday says he received more than 100 phone calls from residents, ministers and state lawmakers objecting to the “Got Boobs?” billboard. “Because it was offensive to the public and being a public official, I have to do something about it,” he says.

Alday and Charles Westlund, owner of The Pony, reached an agreement. “We were prepared to defend the First Amendment and free speech at all costs, as my client has done on more than one occasion,” says Westlund’s attorney, Edward Bearman. “But what solved the problem was simple communication.”

The flap in New Rochelle over Stevens’ billboard began in January. Mayor Noam Bramson had his staff call Clear Channel Outdoor, the company that owns the billboard space, after receiving more than a dozen complaints from residents who felt it was in poor taste.

“Clear Channel elected to replace the sign,” says Bramson, adding he believes his actions steer clear of stepping on the advertiser’s right to free speech. “This was an informal request and it was acceded to on a voluntary basis. If we were using our government authority to regulate content of advertising, I think that would raise questions about principles of law.”

Stevens disagrees.

“I feel completely angry,” says Stevens, who says the billboard company violated his First Amendment rights and breached his contract. He says the company has agreed to put up another billboard in another location, with different text. Jennifer Gery, a spokeswoman for Clear Channel Outdoor, acknowledged that the original sign was taken down because of complaints from officials.

“I know political correctness has risen to tidal wave proportions,” Stevens says. Still, “YourMarketingSucks.com is not the worst thing anyone is going to hear all week.”

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