<body> Public Ad Campaign: Understanding Illegal Wall Signs
This blog is a resource for ad takeover artists and information about contemporary advertising issues in public space. If you have content you would like to share, please send us an email.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Understanding Illegal Wall Signs

Just found this on the illegalsigns.ca website. This site is an amazing resource for understanding how we can fight the progress of the public advertising industry.

There are about 200 3rd party vinyl wall signs in downtown Toronto – and about 175 of them are illegal. Most of the recent illegal sign development has occurred with vinyl wall signs. Understanding how this is happening requires an appreciation of the difference between a fascia sign and a mural sign, as the Toronto Signs By-Law defines them. You see, most illegal vinyl signs actually have 3rd party sign permits – mural permits, permits for hand-painted signs. Why? Because murals are not subject to Separation of Signs - our most important sign control by-law.

The By-Law defines a mural like this: “A sign painted directly on the face of a wall.” A fascia, on the other hand, is defined as: “A sign mounted wholly against the wall of a building.”

A painted mural sign is difficult and very expensive to execute – it requires days of work by a highly skilled (and licensed) sign painter. An advertising-quality mural typically costs upwards of $25,000 to execute and can take weeks, depending on the weather - a major part of that cost is the vacancy cost of not having an ad on the wall during the painting process. Murals also require a sidewalk occupation permit if they face a street. Profitably operating a 3rd party mural sign is impossible except in very high traffic locations that vandals can’t reach, especially if the sign is non-illuminated. For these reasons, Non-Illuminated Mural signs are not heavily restricted in the Signs By-Law - they are restricted by their intrinsic nature.

Fascia signs, on the other hand, which include computer-printed vinyl signs affixed to the side of buildings, are very cheap to execute for advertising companies. For this reason, fascia signs are heavily restricted in the Signs By-Law.

What’s happening is straightforward: advertising companies are obtaining permits for non-illuminated mural signs, which they can obtain for pretty much any wall, and then illegally erecting vinyl fascia signs because they can’t profitably operate hand painted murals on those sites. What has helped the industry most is Municipal Licensing and Standards, which is supposed to enforce the Signs By-Law, but doesn’t know the difference between a fascia sign and a mural; and the Buildings Department, which is supposed to promptly inspect newly constructed signs, but has allowed mural permits to go un-inspected for years.

With the City now taking action against illegal fascias, pursuant to our complaints, the industry’s lobbyist is making a desperate push to post-facto legalize the industry’s fascia sign sites – this would have the effect of legalizing the majority of illegal wall signs in Toronto. The Planning Department will oppose this scheme if they can stop laughing at it.

Let’s take a closer look at how the Signs By-Law treats fascias vs. murals. A 3rd party Fascia is not permitted within 60M of other non-mural 3rd party signs – this restriction does not apply to non-illuminated murals. This is the exact wording of the Separation of Signs By-Law:

No person shall erect or display or cause to be erected or displayed a fascia, ground, roof, pedestal or illuminated mural sign used for the purposes of third party advertising unless it is separated by a minimum radius of sixty (60) metres from any other such sign used for the purposes of third party advertising.

The following table illustrates the stark difference in the way the Signs By-Law treats non-illuminated murals and fascias:

Attribute Restriction on Non-Illuminated Murals Restriction on Fascias
Within 60M of another 3rd party sign No restriction Totally Restricted per 297-10F(1)
Within 300M of another sign over 70 M2 No restriction Totally Restricted per 297-10F(2)
Size Max: 100 M2 per 297-10D(11)(a) Max: 25 M2 per 297-10D(5)(g)
Out of the 175 illegal fascia signs in Toronto, about 100 of them are operating under non-illuminated mural permits. The rest have no permits or 1st party permits, mainly because they are erected in a location where even a 3rd party non-illuminated mural is restricted – like on a historical building or a on a wall facing a street.

Remember Murad? Murad Communications used to run painted advertising signs all over downtown, but they couldn’t cut it anymore. It simply became unprofitable to operate painted signs due to the vast increase in advertising square footage in Toronto – driven by our Planning Department which seriously botched the Signs By-Law from day 1. The Murads were all operating under non-illuminated permits, which means Murad couldn’t legally reach evening rush hour for half the year.

And then Murad, which had its share of enemies in the outdoor advertising industry, was hit by devastating paint bombings which destroyed scores of its ads, interrupted advertising campaigns, and made operating painted signs intolerable for mission critical campaigns.

Computer printed vinyl technology was developed in one of those industry-academic collaborations by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Financed by a consortium of billboard companies, MIT scientists worked with MetroMedia Technologies for the specific goal of creating robotically produced outdoor graphics. MetroMedia (whose TV stations created the FOX network) introduced the technology to the billboard industry in 1987. By August 1993, when the cost of printing vinyl was still no less than the cost of manually painting a sign, Murad’s Michael Chesney was quoted as saying: “Sooner or later it won’t make sense for a guy to manually paint a billboard and get the nose wrong when you can get it right through a computer, cheaper.” Except you can’t get it right through a computer, cheaper, legally. At least not in the good ‘ole City of Toronto. And that’s pretty much the only thing the Planning Department ever got right about our Signs By-Law.

Of course, operating outside the law never bothered Murad much; even before Murad used illegal vinyl it was illegally illuminating more than half its billboards.

As a technology-intensive good, the cost of computer printed vinyl decreased rapidly. So, as Mr. Chesney predicted, Murad started to use illegal vinyl in lieu of paint, fired its muralists, and, in 1997, perhaps because he saw the writing on the wall, Mr. Chesney sold his company for US$5.5 Million to Mediacom/CBS who, in turn, sold 14 Murad sites to Titan a few years ago - a smart move on CBS’s part, a move that allowed CBS to capture a portion of the economic value from running illegal fascia on those 14 sites without actually running illegal fascia themselves. But not that smart… because CBS is still left with 16 illegal vinyl fascia signs in Toronto, all of which are soon to be history.

Astral Media, Megaposter and Abcon are also operating illegal fascia signs on these old Murad sites because they, too, can’t turn a profit while complying with their non-illuminated mural permits.

When the Signs By-Law is enforced against illegal fascias operating under non-illuminated mural permits, advertising will disappear from most of these old Murad sites as well as the 50-odd illegal fascia sites recently developed under non-illuminated mural permits. There are a few mural sites which have attributes required for profitable mural operation: ambient illumination, great demographic targeting, high visibility, difficult to vandalize - but those sites are few and far between.

Nobody anywhere in the world is investing a dime in technology to make painting signs cheaper - globally, painted signs are being legally displaced by cheaper and cheaper computer printed vinyl. The technology for computer printed vinyl has now reached developing countries. The City of Toronto is the only place in the world that we know of that puts significantly fewer restrictions on painted signs, the only City we know of where displacing a painted sign with vinyl is illegal. A company that invests in technology to make painted signs cheaper would be investing in an autarky - you can’t propagate that technology anywhere in the world outside the boundaries of the Former City of Toronto. That’s why billboards on mural permits are headed to the dustbin of history: because you can’t legally operate vinyl and the relative globally-benchmarked productivity of the painter’s labour doesn’t make economic sense anymore. Globalization killed them. Murad’s signs, which do little more than promote transnational brand hegemonies, have been hoisted on their own petard.

By the time IllegalSigns.ca is done, large format vinyl fascia signs will be finished in Toronto, and so will the local sub-industry that has developed around them.

And then the people of Toronto will once again see walls they haven’t seen in years.

UPDATE: Titan Outdoor has sued the City of Toronto over enforcements of fascia signs on mural permits.

Labels: , , , , , ,

      Sharon Zukin
      The Cultures of Cities

      Miriam Greenberg
      Branding New York

      Naomi Klein
      No Logo

      Kalle Lasn
      Culture Jam

      Stuart Ewen
      Captains of Consciousness

      Stuart Ewen
      All Consuming Images

      Stuart & Elizabeth Ewen
      Channels of Desire

      Jeff Ferrell
      Crimes of Style

      Jeff Ferrell
      Tearing Down the Streets

      John Berger
      Ways of Seeing

      Joe Austin
      Taking the Train

      Rosalyn Deutsche
      Evictions art + spatial politics

      Jane Jacobs
      Death+Life of American Cities