Representative Options

By Bill Dorsey

The on-premise and outdoor-advertising industries are periodically subject to both pending and proposed legislation. Here’s how five spokesmen for national sign associations protect and defend their industries.

The roles played by most associations are varied, but most have at least one role in common: They all serve as legislative watchdogs for their respective industries. The on- and off-premise sign industries are no exception. All five of the major national sign associations employ hired representatives to keep their membership informed. Depending upon the legislative climate, maintaining a legislative staff and office sometimes seems extravagant; during other periods, the necessity for an effective lobbying force seems absolutely essential. Between these two states of rest and unrest, the association representative conducts business.

In this sense, it’s not an easy job. It often means carefully cultivating contacts with elected officials over a course of years, only to have those officials lose the next election. Then, the process begins again; new contacts must be made as the educational process starts anew.

It takes someone savvy and experienced to accurately predict when the next round of legislation will be fought. As happened to the outdoor-advertising industry just last year, months — or even years — of calm can be interrupted by a sudden storm.

The following interviews (which comprise three tough questions each) are with the five national sign legislative representatives, whose job it is to batten down the hatches.

The following interview is with Kevin C. Gottlieb, president of the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America.

Question: Although the outdoor-advertising industry emerged victorious in its recent fight over provisions in the highway bill, a major rift ensued between the large and small outdoor-advertising plants. How do you propose to close the gap between these two groups? How do you plan to represent both interests?

Answer: Eighty-five percent of the membership of the Outdoor Adv. Assn. of America (OAAA) is classified as small advertisers that have 1000 or fewer structures. One half of the OAAA’s executive committee comprises representatives from small plants. The other half comes from larger plants. Each representative has one vote. Given this substantial majority of small plants, the future of the OAAA and the outdoor-advertising industry is inextricably intertwined with a harmonious relationship between larger and smaller firms. All firms in the outdoor-advertising business, regardless of their size, share more common goals than the differences of opinion which occasionally separate them

As the new president of the OAAA, I made it clear in my initial public addresses that I come to this position with absolutely no preconceived notions. I do not favor nor oppose any idea on the basis of its support by the larger or smaller firms. Mv views will be formulated on the basis of merit, on a case-by-case basis. All opinions will be heard. All evidence will be accepted from OAAA members and non-members alike. The positions of the OAAA will be formed after careful deliberation by the members, taking into thorough consideration the concerns of all outdoor-advertising companies, regardless of size or status.

Promises of openness and fairness are easy to make. Time will tell whether the OAAA’s actions continue to be consistent with its words. That sort of consistency has and always will be a primary goal of the OAAA.

Question: Besides the highway-bill legislation, the OAAA was confronted with another stern challenge from those influential interests that proposed an ad ban on the industry’s largest account: tobacco. Do you foresee the eventual passage of an ad ban on tobacco or alcohol? What should the industry do to fight the proposed ban?

Answer: National policy decisions on the prohibition of advertising for any commodity, product or service are Congressional decisions. In a representative government, the elected leaders are typically eager to hear from those who are concerned with or would be affected by a particular policy. The concerned individuals, without coercion, have a right to cxpress themselves. Given Congress’ recent history concerning advertising prohibitions , it would appear likely that, after considering the public will, the nation’s needs, the potential economic impact and the American tradition of personal freedom of choice, the members of Congress would be inclined to avoid prohibitions and to favor free minds and free markets. People prefer to make their own choices about their own lifestyles. The public generally has good judgment. Incumbent members of Congress tend to believe in this good judgment, especially because a majority of that voting public elected them.

Question: There appears to be a great number of distortions and/or downright falsehoods that have circulated about the outdoor-advertising industry in general. What do you believe the industry must do to correct these misconceptions?

Answer: The facts about the outdoor-advertising industry are not difficult to understand. The public, however, is besieged by so many information sources, that it might occasionally be overwhelmed by “‘information overload.” Speaking sensibly to the American people is essential, regardless of their level of overt interest. Speaking truthfully is crucial, regardless of the time. As interested and disinterested members of the community at large learn more about the public benefits of outdoor advertising and the positive, individual and private needs it serves, the strong public support that outdoor advertising has received in previous public-opinion polls will continue to grow.

Distortion is dispelled by discussion. Members of the public have a strong sense of fairness. Permit them to have access to facts, and they will draw their own conclusions and will do so quite well. The best cure for a case of falsehood is a dose of undiluted truth. The OAAA will rededicate itself to sharing the facts with all who are willing to listen.

The following interview is with Dan Simon, president of the Small Advertisers Council.

Question: Do you believe the Small Advertisers Council, which was ostensibly formed to protect the interests of the small outdoor-advertising operator, has been accorded its due credit for helping to defeat portions of the Transportation Bill that would have harmed the independent plant operator?

Answer: The Small Advertisers Council [SAC] was the key player in representing the interests of the independent operators with respect to Transportation Bill issues. As you know, the major effort to defeat the cap on the number of billboards was in the Senate. It was there, through the efforts of the SAC and members such as Bill Smith of Kentucky, that the battle was won.

Perhaps our efforts are best summarized by the comments of Senator Wendell Ford (D-KY) in the Senate debate of Feb. 3, 1987, in his argument against the ban on sign construction:

“Those on whose behalf I take the floor today, the hundreds of small billboard operators in this country, will be flat out of business.

Mr. President, I am not talking about the giant companies which own roughly 80% of all existing billboards. I am talking about just plain folks. about a small, family-run enterprise that is the true embodiment of the American way.”

I don’t feel we have received adequate credit for the achievement. While the SAC was not the only group involved in the victory, it certainly was a major participant that served as a unifying force to focus the efforts of the small operator.

Question: What effect have the various highway-logo programs had on the small outdoor-plant operator? How closely do you work with such associations as the American Council of Highway Advertisers on this issue? Do you work primarily on a federal level, a state level or on both levels?

Answer: Generally. the small operators are not in favor of the logo program. However, I am not aware of any major negative economic impact on our members at this time. We do work very closely with the American Council of Highway Advertisers, through board members who are active in both SAC and ACHA, as well as by joint discussion of common issues. We anticipate even closer ties with ACHA and other related industry associations as SAC’s development progresses.

When we first organized, in order to fight the proposed Transportation Bill sanctions, by necessity we focused our efforts at working on a federal level. However, we knew from the beginning that we would want to be effective at the state and local levels, as well, and this belief was included in our by-laws.

Now that the initial problem has been solved for the time being, we have begun our efforts toward establishing a similar voice on the local and state levels. We are now in the process of forming a library of sign-related court cases at each of these levels. We feel that what happens in one community and state could be helpful to our members in other areas.

Question: In terms of member numbers and financial backing, how successful is the Small Advertisers Council?

Answer: Relative to the progress of the Small Advertisers Council in representing the small advertisers, I feel we have been successful in developing more than a nucleus of companies who have provided financial backing and support to achieve our initial purpose. Our emphasis thus far has been primarily on the immediate legislative issues. To further develop a more broadened base of programs and membership support, the SAC has retained Smith, Bucklin and Assoc., a leading association-management firm, to guide and assist us in this development.

The following interview is with Rich Roberts, president of the American Council of Highway Advertisers.

Question: Of all the various national sign associations, the American Council of Highway Advertisers is unique because of its inherently strong base of support from the actual sign users. What are the advantages of representing your case from the sign buyers’ perspective? Are there any disadvantages? Do you believe the sign industry in general effectively involves the clients in its legal battles?

Answer: There are numerous distinct advantages in involving sign buyers and users in efforts to control excessively restrictive sign legislation.

Too many legislative bodies see the “billboard industry” as a monolithic structure that stands somewhere on the outer fringes of the business community and operates independently from it. By involving users of signage, it becomes more apparent to public officials that signs are a normal and, in many cases, a necessary part of doing business.

Billboards and signs attract customers to businesses, and the loss of signage can direct cause losses to the business using it. It is important to convince government decision-makers that protection of signage does not just protect sign companies, but also protects numerous businesses, which provide goods and services to the public, from losing customers and revenue.

In addition to the strength and legitimacy that outdoor-advertising users bring to the rational, economic arguments in favor of signage, they provide an excellent grass-roots base. Because of the diverse nature and importance that many of these businesses bring to their communities, they often have access to decision-makers that the billboard/sign industry may not have.

We have found no disadvantages to involving sign users in addressing legislative problems, but, occasionally, we encounter some difficulties in keeping all parties united in a single direction. Signage, like any other medium, attracts a very broad customer base that is scattered among diverse products and services. Too often, users and producers of signage focus only on their immediate problem.

As an example, operators and users concerned primarily with product advertising in a dense, urban area may concentrate solely on restrictions placed on their signs, while ignoring the problems faced by a travel-oriented business in a more rural area. In other situations, operators and users in large markets may fail to take into account some of the unique problems faced by operators and users in small markets. Any exclusionary policy, derived by representatives of the industry in dealing with public policy, dilutes the interests of all the others.

With the exception of very few isolated cases on the national level, only recently has the industry made a concerted effort to involve the users of signage in influencing legislation or policy. The industry appears to have been more effective in this area at the state and local levels. The ACHA is the only national association to organize the users of signage to take an equal part in protecting a medium that they need and use frequently.

Question: Of obvious and immediate concern to the ACHA are the recently enacted (or about to be enacted) state-run logo programs. The danger is magnified because the logo-program war must be waged on two fronts: national and local. What exactly is the ACHA trying to accomplish in these two areas? How successful has the ACHA been so far? What does the future hold?

Answer: The ACHA has been researching the logo programs to determine just what its effects will be on both the users and producers of signage. Our preliminary results indicate that if logos are used at all, there is much room for improvement. On the plus side, logos can provide a supplementary service to travelers by giving them specific directional information.

The negatives outweigh any pluses. Too many state officials see logos as a replacement for private signage, despite federal assurances that the purpose is only to provide traveler service information. Logos are incapable of providing sufficient information at appropriate distances from businesses, of properly informing the traveler or of properly representing the goods and services being offered by the advertiser.

Logo signs are incapable of carrying prices, detailed directions, or descriptions of specific services; are located too close to interchanges and exclude tourist attractions. They allow only food, fuel, lodging and campground services to have logos. Consequently, they are extremely limited in the information they provide and can’t service any company in the competitive business mix.

To compound the problem, logo programs were developed within federal guidelines, but each state sets its own detailed requirements as to qualifications for logos, the prices charged for the service and conditions of use. Until we can get a handle on each state program, state associations will need to monitor logo activities closely in their own states. These programs could create problems on a state-by-state level unless the states recognize their limitations and accept the legitimate need for private signage.

We are now researching the individual state programs because there is no central source of information about them. As a result, the ACHA has not yet taken a position on logos. At this point, the best we can say for logo programs is that some users find them of marginal value, but only when they are supplement private signage. Any other use of logos becomes anti-competitive and detrimental to both sign companies and users alike.

Question: One thing is certain about the passage of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act legislation: The issue doesn’t seem to ever go away. Do you expect another challenge to the Act in the near future?

Answer: Given the intensity and substantial funding of anti-sign organizations, the Highway Beautification issue will be with us for many years to come.

The issue is not about to go away. The rights of companies to operate, and of advertisers to use signage, are currently being challenged regularly in many communities and states nationwide.

Our most severe national crisis, since the passage of the original federal act in 1965, was successfully fought off just this spring. Despite the overblown claims of victory by some organizations, there was no victory, only a lull in the battle. Credit for success in preventing major damage should be shared by the alliance of national and state organizations that cooperated in a strong grassroots campaign to present our case effectively before Congress. We are pleased that the ACHA acted as a clearinghouse and coordinator, and we recognize with gratitude the efforts of those organizations that were our allies.

We fully expect a challenge from anti-sign forces before the end of the 99th Congress. We will continue to monitor national activity and prepare alternate proposals in the event that hostile legislation surfaces between now and 1989. Unless there is an unforeseen change in the attitude of key members of Congress, any efforts to introduce national legislation before 1989 would be naive, premature and counterproductive.

The following interview is with Thomas M. Norton, chairman of the Eight-Sheet Outdoor Adv. Assn., Inc.

Question: Recently, several news stories have emerged that suggest that a disproportionate number of eight-sheet ads target “socially harmful” liquor and tobacco advertising to a minority audience. Do you believe this is a fair assessment of the eight-sheet medium?

Answer: This type of story is misleading. True, eight-sheets do effectively reach targeted audiences, one of which is black consumers. And true, tobacco and liquor companies, because they have been prohibited from broadcast advertising, have made extensive use of print and out-of-home advertising. Thus, it might appear that a disproportionate amount of tobacco and liquor advertising is being directed toward blacks via outdoor displays.

Reporters should remember, however, that outdoor advertising represents less than 3% of all advertising dollars spent. Of this small amount, less than 10% of liquor and tobacco outdoor advertising, is targeted to minorities, because 90% of the liquor and tobacco industries’ outdoor advertising is targeted toward a general audience. So, while liquor and tobacco outdoor advertising directed toward minorities is very visible, it represents a very minor portion of total advertising expenditures.

Further, minority consumers represent only one market segment sought by tobacco and liquor advertisers, and, although these advertisers make effective use of eight-sheets to reach this target audience, it still remains just one of the targets chosen, and eight-sheets are just one of the media used to reach it. Eight-sheets apparently draw criticism because of their effectiveness.

Also consider that the bulk of eight-sheet advertising outside the major markets is local. Because national advertising represents only approximately 40% of all eight-sheet advertising, any percentages used in stories of this type, which are based on national-advertising sales, often deliver not only a distorted view of the advertising goals of tobacco and liquor marketers, but of our medium as well.

Question: The eight-sheet medium has, at times, been criticized for positioning itself against and distancing itself from the 30-sheet and painted-bulletins industry. Because some of the most prominent eight-sheet members also have interests in the so called “standardized” outdoor industry, do you believe this is a wise position to take?

Answer: We consider eight-sheets an integral part of the overall out-of-home industry. As such, we support all efforts to promote the betterment of the industry, and we make every attempt to cooperate with these efforts. During the past year, we have communicated on many occasions with the OAAA to cooperate with its legislative efforts. As a matter of fact, because of my association with both the OAAA and the ESOAA, I have been asked to join the OAAA Executive Committee and Board of Directors and act as a liaison between the two groups.

The ESOAA is not against 30-sheets or paints or any of their organizations; we are just for eight-sheets. In line with that philosophy, we feel we must continue to promote our own medium, and we are reminded that no one but ourselves will speak out for eight-sheets. Eight-sheets do offer certain unique advantages, and we feel that local ordinances in particular should treat eight-sheets with special consideration. When there is a chance to secure appropriate differentiation, we plan to make every effort to communicate our advantages. In many markets, eight-sheet companies and 30-sheet companies are in competitive situations. However, most ESOAA members who maintain both eight-sheets and 30-sheets or paints understand and appreciate our association’s philosophy.

Question: Do you believe the language in proposed legislative bills normally makes the correct distinctions between the various forms of out-of-home advertising? In your opinion, how important is the ESOAA’s role in educating the lawmakers about this distinction?

Answer: We feel that one of our association’s duties is to communicate the unique character of eight-sheets. As is to be expected, few legislators fully understand the distinctions between various forms of out-of-home advertising. To most, a “sign” is a “sign,” whether it’s a directional or on-premise sign, a painted bulletin, a 30-sheet or eight-sheet display, and they do not differentiate. Thus, proposed legislation seldom recognizes the unique advantages which eight-sheets offer, particularly in urban settings. We feel the ESOAA and its individual members represent the only collective group available to educate our lawmakers about the advantages of eight-sheets.

The following interview is with George Kopecky, president of the National Electric Sign Assn.

Question: As only one recruit in any army of legislative advocates on the Hill, do you believe you can realistically have much impact on pending or proposed legislation? How do you realistically view your role on the Hill – as who can effect change? As someone who can inform the sign industry of change?

Answer: One person, armed with facts, evidence and a commitment, can have a significant impact on the U.S. Congress and on the federal regulators who implement the legislation. This is also true at the local and state government levels, and individual sign companies and state associations should not be dissuaded from conducting a lobbying campaign to explain the roles of on-premise signs in the commercial environment. One person can make a difference.

Prior to joining NESA, I worked for 22 years with several U.S. Senate and House committees and was involved in a wide variety of legislative programs, including the Highway Beautification Act. This experience has helped me to understand the details of the legislation that affects the sign industry, the appropriate legislative techniques to employ and when to use them, and who the important legislative players are.

Another tactic that one person, or one group, can use effectively is to join with other similar groups and form a coalition to present the issues. A united coalilion is an effective device that NESA has used on occasion.

Perhaps the most important point to make is that, while I have been selected by NESA to serve as its spokesman in Washington, I am not speaking just for myself. I make it clear in my communications with senators, representatives and their staffs that NESA, with its almost 1000 members, and the on-premise sign industry represent a $3 billion-a-year industry, made up primarily of small businesses that provide some 55,000 direct jobs throughout all congressional districts in the country. Also, the products and services represent a vital and necessary advertising medium. These are important points because the congressional types know what legislation in Washington can impact constituents in their districts.

Additionally, NESA provides for a vice chairman for legislation, who serves as a ranking officer in the association, and for a permanent legislative committee. Both are active in national and local legislation. Also, NESA has created a national Political Action Committee – the NESA PAC. The political efforts of this group augment NESA’s legislative efforts.

With regard to informing the sign industry of legislative changes or proposals, NESA does so on a regular basis through monthly newsletters to the membership, special-advisory bulletins, distribution of official government reports and through educational seminars at the conventions and tradeshows.

Question: Although the outdoor-advertising industry’s Highway Beautification Act has occupied center stage for the past legislative year, not too long ago, on-premise, sign-industry issues seized the day. We are specifically referring to legislation caused by the energy shortage of 1973 (which caused the lights to be turned off in some areas) and the emergence of Street Graphics legislation in the mid ’70s. Do you foresee a re-emergence of these or other issues in the near future?

Answer: While the primary legislative focus in Washington the past year concerning amendments to the federal Highway Beautification Act was directed toward outdoor advertising, several legislative proposals contained amendments that would have restricted on-premise signs to the “approximate area of the activities being advertised.” This language would have created a hornet’s nest and could have resulted in 50 different interpretations by the states. It was ill-founded, and the sponsors were actually trying to restrict certain types of billboards.

NESA expended considerable effort in explaining the potential adverse impacts of this amendment to the sponsoring legislators, their staffs and to the Department of Transportation regulators. They agreed with NESA, and the language was dropped from subsequent versions of the proposed legislation.

Although the Highway Beautification Act is the keystone piece of federal legislation that impacts the sign industry, other government programs and issues are also of immediate and potential future concern. Examples of immediate concern relate to environmental legislation that involves the handling, storage and disposal of toxic chemical wastes, and the training of employees who handle toxic chemicals under the “right-to-know” laws.

1.) Street Graphics. The following is from a NESA report on the subject:

As predicted in a bulletin sent last October to National Electric Sign Assn. members, the authors of Street Graphics are in the process of revising the book again. The latest edition of Street Graphics is expected by the end of the year.

Street Graphics is a book, first published in 1971 and revised in 1977, that outlines a philosophical concept for the regulation of on-premise signs, and offers a model sign code. Written by attorney Daniel Mandelker and technical planner William Ewald Jr., Street Graphics is carried in the American Planning Assn. library, so it is available to the planning community as a research and reference tool.

The key concept advocated in Street Graphics is that signs should be used for identification purposes, and that only under certain circumstances should signs be used as advertising messages. The book states that the primary function of street graphics is to index the environment, that is, to tell people where they can find what.

Concern for aesthetics and the removal of clutter are certainly at the heart of the book. In advocating a model sign code, the authors attempt to use formulae that involve concepts such as “items of information” and “information overload,” which are applied to letters, logos and sign faces.

When the first version of Street Graphics was published in 1971, NESA representatives pointed out the weaknesses and fallacies, some of which were then corrected in the 1977 edition. For example, inaccurate attributions were made to certain researchers, so, of necessity, the book was erroneous in the way that it quoted and interpreted the work of these researchers.

NESA published a rebuttal to the 1977 version of Street Graphics that expressed its continuing concerns and criticisms, and disavowed what was incorporated into the second version.

NESA’s response to the 1977 version is a 21-page book called A Review of the Street Graphics Concept: Some Issues to Consider. NESA’s main concern is that if the concepts and the model sign code espoused in Street Graphics were adopted in a widespread fashion, the result would be over-restriction of on-premise signs to the detriment of businesses that use the signs.

2.) The possible future shortage of energy could again disrupt our society and bring about restrictions on signs.

This country had traumatic experiences with energy shortages in 1973 and again in the late 1970s. Signs were targeted for controls and blackouts. Although it can be demonstrated that such restrictions were ill-founded, the emotionalism involved at the time was serious, and the negative effects on the sign industry and its customers were many. While the “energy crisis” is not a “front-burner” issue today, it could erupt again.

Question: Besides the legislative topics which directly affect the sign industry in particular, quite a few pending laws will impact small businesses in general. What proposed laws affecting small business should the sign industry be watchful of?

Answer: While I have focused on legislative topics that directly affect the on-premise sign industry, there are several pending legislative proposals in the current Congress that could impact small businesses in general.

A recent analysis by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce indicates the current Congress has submitted more legislative proposals that would more adversely impact small businesses than any of its recent predecessors.

The Chamber report notes these are not “anti-small business” bills; rather, they are pro-health, pro-worker rights, pro-family etc. All have a popular appeal to voters.

Several of the bills, which will be subjects for congressional hearings and lobbying as they make their way forward, include:

  • Mandatory employer-provided health insurance for employees; and with as much as 80% of the cost of the insurance premiums to be paid by employers (S.210).
  • Mandatory unpaid leaves of absence for both parents when children are born, adopted or seriously ill will also apply to employees whose dependent parents are seriously ill. Some proposals will include plans to establish a commission to recommend ways to implement paid leave in the future (S.249 and HR. 925).
  • An increase in the minimum wage from the current $3.35 an hour to $3.85 in 1988, $4.25 in 1989 and $4.65 in 1990 (S. 837 and HR. 1834).
  • In summary, NESA expends considerable effort on behalf of its members and the on-premise sign industry in general, on both national and local legislative and sign-code issues.


Photo by Jomar Thomas on Unsplash

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 Associations, Outdoor Advertising, Sign Codes, Small Business Administration.