Sign Codes and the Need for Advocacy

The following article originally appeared in the September 1983 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

By R. James Claus

(Part one of a speech given at the Eight-Sheet Outdoor convention in San Francisco.)

The future of the eight-sheet industry has been, and will continue to be, shaped by the development of sign codes. Codes tell us what types and sizes of signs we may build, where we may build them and whether, in fact, we may build any signs at all.

Signs are part of the body of law collectively known as police (or regulatory) powers. Unlike criminal law, which tells us only what we may not do, and civil law, which attempts to redress damages, regulatory law tells us both what we may and may not do. Like zoning ordinances, sign codes are tools for the implementation of public priorities expressed in a land-use plan. These public priorities can be broadly categorized as relating to safety, health, welfare or aesthetics.

Because sign codes restrict the rights of property owners, they can impose important private costs and benefits as well as public costs and benefits. Almost invariably, someone gains or loses money or freedom of action whenever police powers are used. To achieve an equitable distribution of costs and benefits, the public good must be weighed against the private costs of regulation. The U.S. Constitution and state constitutions set the parameters of this balancing act. Sign codes raise constitutional issues in the areas of freedom of speech (the First Amendment), just compensation (the Fifth Amendment) and due process of law (the Fourteenth Amendment).

Criteria of the public good
Two general points related to the public good produced by sign codes are in order.

First, the use of aesthetic criteria in the evaluation of the public good produced by sign codes is a new development of the last 20 years. It seems safe to assume that the use of aesthetic criteria will increase; the Supreme Court has upheld their use.

Second, through misinformation, the misconception that signs cause traffic accidents has become widespread. In fact, a large and reliable body of evidence, including federal studies, suggests that this is completely false. Unless a sign falls on someone, its impact on public safety is likely to be positive – not negative.

I would advise anyone in the industry to become familiar with the literature on this subject before testifying at hearings during the drafting of a sign code. Restricting sign use for traffic safety reasons can be, and has been, overturned in court. Combined Communications Corp. v. the City of Denver and Metromedia Corp. v. the City of San Diego are two of the best cases illustrating this.

The sign industry should take the initiative to refute misconceptions about sign safety and other aspects of sign use because it is unrealistic to assume that anyone else will. The industry, along with the entire economy, will pay the price if concepts based on misinformation are enacted into law. And remember, because health and public safety are concerns that impact life itself, a code thought to protect either of these will be seen as justified in imposing higher private costs than one whose objectives are seen as protecting welfare and aesthetics.

Sign-code development
A sign code is a living document that changes and is modified to suit changing residential, commercial and industrial land-use patterns and changing technology. As downtown Los Angeles evolved into a center of national and international business from a local commercial area, its signage needs changed, and its sign code was adapted. The same was true of Santa Clara, CA, (Silicon Valley) in its transition from agriculture to high-technology light manufacturing. The advent of electronic message centers required changes in the 1958 Highway Act and the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.

Code development can be divided into three discrete stages. In the first stage, the need for a new sign code or modifications to an existing code are recognized, and a rough draft is prepared. In the second stage, public hearings are held to discuss the rough draft and/or proposed modifications. In the third and final stage, a city council holds hearings on a final draft and prepares to enact the measure into law.

The industry can most effectively impact the development of a sign code if it concentrates its efforts on the first two stages. The early stages provide the best opportunity to encourage a flexible code based on accurate information about the industry and a reasonable regulatory philosophy. Also during these stages, objectionable code provisions can most easily be changed; discussion tends to solidify public opinion, and the options of decision makers as the final stage of the process is reached.

Too often, the discussion preceding adoption of a sign code is carried on in the absence of information about what a sign is and what it does. Industry input in the code-writing process can be especially valuable if the function of signs in an economic environment is made clear.

Public benefits of sign use
Eight-sheet outdoor signs are a standardized advertising medium, different in certain respects from other media, but essentially the same in the resource-allocation function they serve. All advertising, by giving consumers information about products, goods and services oriented to the satisfaction of their specific needs, helps stimulate sales. Increased sales help production, distribution and service systems operate nearer their capacities. Capacity usage, whether one considers it in the context of a business or of the entire economy, is an important measure of efficiency. And efficient use of resources is one of the primary ”welfare” functions a sign code is written to promote. Without standardized outdoor advertising, the American economy or a local economy would be significantly weakened.

Another public benefit of sign use is its contribution to the efficient use of land, a factor of production whose allocation commands more attention at the municipal government level than any other. Eight-sheets have distinct advantages over other types of signs in this respect, because their small size and variety of mounting techniques makes them compatible with many other types of urban structures, including on-premise informational-directional signs.

The two types of signs can coexist because they serve essentially different functions. An eight-sheet creates an image for, or gives information about, a product, good or service. It only requires the passing motorist’s readership. Informational-directional signage, by contrast, ideally prompts the motorist to stop his car, get out and buy something. The small size of eight-sheets enables them to make use of small urban locations that have literally no other economic use and would otherwise be “wasted.”

Private benefits
Signs provide public and private benefits at the same time. By improving poor site characteristics of a retail location, a practice known as sign trading can help retailers while enhancing overall land use. A Los Angeles building supply outlet called Panel-It, which carries a full range of remodelling supplies, was confronted with two problems: a badly located store and a confusing name. Fortunately, Panel-It’s store is located on a large lot. Gateway Outdoor Adv. is building three signs on that lot, and will trade signs in two other locations to Panel-It in return. As a result, the location will be improved by adding multistreet frontage, and Panel-It’s new outdoor ads will explain the range and type of products it sells. Its trade area will be enlarged, and its customer base will be expanded by this sign trade.

Standardized outdoor signs also offer small retailers a chance to share the private benefits of national advertising campaigns – while being paid, rather than paying — to do so. A recent study by Joseph E. Seagram demonstrated that an eight-sheet sign located at the point of purchase, like any other point-of- purchase advertising, helps move the entire class of products advertised. In this way, even the smallest independent store can benefit from coverage bought by such giants as R.J. Reynolds, Brown and Foreman and the Milk Producers of California. Needless to say, such coverage would otherwise be beyond the budget of an independent retailer’s wildest dreams.

R. James Claus, formerly of the Institute of Signage Research, the now defunct research arm of the National Electric Sign Assn., is presently president of Claus Outdoor Adv., an eight-sheet plant in Los Banos, CA.

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Posted in 1st Ammendment / Freedom of Speech, Blog: Rhetorical, Outdoor Advertising, Sign Codes, Supreme Court, Traffic Safety.