Some Policy Considerations For Sign Legislation

The following article originally appeared in the July 1973 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

By Dr. R.James Claus

The following article outlines some problems of various North American cities in dealing with the visual environment. We hope this information helps any policy-making body realize the ultimate effect that its decisions regarding signage will have on larger questions, such as the allocation of urban resources. The allocation question is critical in the control of billboards in particular, and of any kind of signage in general. The issue is not simply a matter of state vs. the individual. In a broad sense, it is the question of how to allocate the entire composite of industrial, commercial, and agricultural resources of our society.

Several factors account for the divergent opinions voiced when issues of sign control and kindred questions arise. The first remarks are often a glib mention of the market mechanism. Economists, students and professors in business schools, psychologists, and even people at cocktail parties discuss this concept. Because the concept is rather difficult, few understand it clearly. In its simplest terms, the notion of “market mechanism” says resources in our society should be allocated by the individuals in society under common guidelines passed by the state. As is true of all theories of resource management, the cry is always raised that this is the most efficient way to protect the health and welfare of society’s members. The direct relation of the market mechanism to this system is — through the marketplace, individuals meet and make their wishes known and felt as expressed needs; thus, they do dictate how the other end of the economic spectrum, the supply end, will respond to their demands. The logic is, for example, if a sign or class of signs is inappropriate or somehow dangerous, this will immediately be reflected in the behavior of people in the marketplace. The proponents of this viewpoint claim to understand how the mechanism does effect changes and also claim it’s the optimal way for the resources of our society to be allocated.

The riddle of the right to allocate resources is further complicated by a false analogy. Our society has banned the subliminal technique in advertising. Any promotion that depends on conditioning people to use a particular product or service is not allowed. The opponents of other particular types of advertising, such as billboards, then conclude that if the state can censor or prohibit one type of advertising, it is logical to extend the practice to other sorts as well.

Another unsubstantiated argument against billboards is the vague notion that they are responsible for traffic accidents. If they pose a threat to the general well-being of the public, they should therefore be phased out. However, no documented evidence based on reliable research has ever supported this claim.

Equally as common as the market-mechanism argument is the idea that special (usually self-appointed) groups of people in our society believe they are somehow enlightened enough to determine how the society’s collective resources should be allocated. These groups are not distinguished by training or experience, but by virtue of their claimed intuition that they know what’s best for the majority in terms of tasteful visual environment. These groups vary somewhat from one city to another, but a few general remarks characterize them. Typically, their naivete of the legal nuances of different categories of signage is a source of embarrassment. For example, they fail to recognize the gross difference between on-premise signs and outdoor advertising, namely, billboards. Because of this limitation, many of their suggestions must be clarified before they can be understood. Their philosophy and attitudes rest on their assumption that our environment must be made more tolerable. They tend towards a traditional interpretation of the relationship of the private sector of the economy to the state on the question of regulation of urban resources.

These interest groups carry on what they obviously consider a noble struggle to create an environment that reflects their own taste. Their confidence in the possibility of making their taste operational is to be admired. But there are laws that will not allow any group, however well-intentioned, to legislate its opinions into law. The courts are repeatedly handing down decisions that remind us that a cultural preference may not be propagated by laws.

At least two distinct subgroups can be recognized who would “improve” our visual surroundings. One element is usually associated with a college or university community; as a consequence, they usually have had little experience with the commercial milieu. A second subgroup can be described as those opposed to the rapidity of change in recent years. This resistance is expressed as a wish to lessen commercial expansion throughout society. Because the members of various interest groups and subgroups are aware of the impact of what they are seeking to do, they also realize they will have to defend their position, particularly when it is challenged judicially. Unfortunately, the scarcity of reliable research that supports their claims leads them to use any evidence, no matter how invalid, that will lend credibility to their viewpoint. Rarely is the work of serious researchers (as is evident in the techniques used) reported. Possibly the most flagrant use of such inferior research suggests the relation of billboards to traffic accidents. Currently, professional researchers don’t take such findings seriously because of its invalid methodology.

The third group, which is distinguished by its unique potency, is the community of professional planners. This group doesn’t need to establish its credibility — they are expected to understand the implications of their far-reaching decisions on society. But experience reveals their intent to often be controlling the flow of resources. Often, in plotting the details of the visual environment, planners are allowed (and encouraged) to direct policy decisions on signage, though, in fact, they have little knowledge of the functions of signage.

To be specific, Street Graphics, written by a planning consultant, proposes a system for controlling the visual environment. Before one ponders whether such a system could ever be evolved, an even more pressing question arises: Would one want to live under it? For example, it may not be possible for the city bureaucracy to make the necessary, absolutely objective decisions if the proposed control scheme is to function. This would indeed be a problem because one prominent criterion for signs would be whether they cause “information overload”; that is, the control would be over the copy area and content of the sign.

To discredit the belief that signs cause this overload phenomenon, understand that one of the most difficult areas of psychology is the study of perception and human information processing. The most sophisticated computer imaginable is elementary compared to the systems used in human perception. Knowing the precise limitations of human’s numerous and overlapping information-processing operations isn’t feasible. Determining those limitations would necessitate studying every individual to know his particular rate. Besides being impossible, given the present state of knowledge, such a task would probably be ill-advised in a democratic society.

The obstacle of special-interest groups to find research that signs cause accidents is equally as daunting for planners claiming signs cause information overload. Rather than settling on second-rate authorities to support their cause, planners have been reduced to using perfectly legitimate evidence in a tortuous way. This strategy is highly conspicuous in “Street Graphics,” as later discussion will point out.

Similar to the optimum use of society’s resources is the closely related question of how to best regulate land use. Superficially, this specific task is why planners are trained and eventually hired. Because proposing schemes for land use and regulation is highly problematic, planners sometimes tend to overlook how they can exploit their privileges and discriminate against a particular sector of the business community. Because billboards are a land use, and therefore subject to the regulations of planners, they can be subjected to effective discrimination. The obvious tool for effecting immediate changes is a revised zoning scheme. The motives for changes are frequently beyond reproach, and are directed toward protecting the “health and welfare” of the general public. But another class of zoning changes is more negative than positive in its impact. A locally owned and operated retail establishment, which does not enjoy the lavish advertising budget of a national campaign, as do franchised businesses, depends heavily on the wide coverage at low rates made available by signs. When planners propose improved land regulation by banning many non-standardized signs, they cause a severe economic hardship to the small merchant. It is difficult to justify such a coup under the banner of protecting anybody’s health or well-being.

Land-regulation debates become trivial compared to another aspect of sign legislation, one particularly significant to Americans. This is the question of controlling the information flow in a free society. This type of sign control springs from the attempts being made in several major cities to limit the copy area and content of signs. The grim prospect of what may follow is undeniable. Perhaps it will be the way that one must decorate his home, outside or inside. Perhaps it will be a code of what is acceptable personal dress and appearance. Obviously, most members of a free society would prefer not to live under such controls.

Any decision-maker concerned with signs must be forewarned about a tactic facetiously known as the “motherhood issue.” This technique involves taking up a cause which no sane person could find objectionable, be it better sign control or motherhood and implying that one’s opponents are against this cause. The issue may be patently illogical, but can be emotionally compelling, particularly if raised before a group that self righteously considers itself enlightened.

Cries often raised by the anti-billboard factions include expressions of disgust with “filthy lucre.” Such groups argue that anyone with profit as a motive can’t be seriously concerned about proper control of the visual environment. This objection overlooks that many planners who draw up the new land-use and zoning schemes have much to gain if their wishes are followed. For example, if a planning scheme calls for a new civic center, one assumes the consultant realizes an architect will need to design that complex. And if that consultant happens himself to be an architect, or to be closely associated with one, it is difficult to claim that he has no motive of profit at stake.


Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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Posted in Content Neutrality (Reed v. Gilbert), Outdoor Advertising, Sign Codes.