<body> Public Ad Campaign: Cover Up
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cover Up

This article was written for the November 29th, 2006 issue of The New York Press and was only recently brought to my attention. The result was the removal of vinyl signs from scaffolding all around the city. The DOB created a Sign Enforcement Program for illegal advertising and began policing more heavily. Bnet seemed to think they were sending the wrong message, yet illegal signs still exist all over the city. You can call 311 to report illegal billboards, and I would encourage anyone to visit illegalbillboards.org for a more information regarding NYC outdoor advertising.

How New York’s buildings are disappearing beneath a blanket of never-ending scaffolds and backroom deals

By Lindsay Beyerstein

For many residents of the oft-termed New New York, the post-9/11 building boom represents prosperity, regeneration and renewed vitality. Throughout the city, new buildings are springing up and existing structures are undergoing improvements. New condos are rising behind construction walls. Venerable landmark buildings are shedding decades of city grime and restoring their former grandeur with ambitious restoration projects. Lately, it seems as though every block has at least one building shrouded in scaffolds and netting.

Over the past five years, scaffolds and construction walls have become fixtures of the New York landscape. So has the advertising that’s plastered all over them. It’s almost remarkable to see a scaffold that doesn’t bear a lurid vinyl banner touting a television network, a beer, an airline or an automobile.

Vinyl construction wraps loom over sidewalks all over the city—from the towering blue Infiniti ad wrapped around a vacant lot in Soho to the new Equinox Fitness wrap on the Flatiron Building. As soon as a construction site wall goes up, it gets plastered with brightly colored posters for records, movies, concerts and gadgets, usually as part of a corporate sniping campaign known in the trade as “wild posting.”

These ads are so brazen and so ubiquitous that most would find it hard to believe that most of them are, in fact, totally illegal. Construction site ads run afoul of the New York City law stating that, “there shall be no information, pictorial representations or any business or advertising messages posted on such protective structures at demolition or construction sites.” In laymen’s terms, that means that if you see an ad on a construction site, be it a poster or a full-scale sidewalk shed wrap, it’s almost certainly illegal. The only exception is for businesses whose regular signs are obscured by construction; they are allowed small wooden or metal sign directly in front of their outlets.

“It is illegal to advertise on a scaffold shed or a construction wall in New York City,” confirms Jennifer Givner, a spokeswoman for New York’s City Department of Buildings, the agency tasked with policing construction signage.

The rules are crystal clear, but New York is facing an epidemic of illegal advertising. In the summer 2006, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer mounted a vigorous campaign of press conferences, official statements and media appearances to pressure the Department of Buildings to crack down on illegal ads by enforcing the existing laws.

In a press release issued Aug. 20, 2006, Stringer stated, “More than an eyesore for our neighborhoods, these advertisements are illegal and inappropriate. We cannot allow corporate branding to determine the look of our streets and neighborhoods. We have laws in place to avoid these situations and clearly they are not being enforced.”

“It’s an illegal black market,” said State Senator Tom Duane, one of Stringer’s most visible allies in the fight against illegal ads. It’s also a booming business. New York’s construction boom and the looming deadline for facade repairs under Local Law 11 ensure a steady supply of advertising space. Sidewalk sheds, the legally-mandated enclosures that bridge the sidewalk to shield the public from falling debris, are prime targets for custom-printed vinyl wrap ads.

Advertisers from all over the world are vying to associate their products with the new, affluent New York. Whether it’s the bright lights of Times Square, or the giant wallscapes of Soho, advertisers can’t wait to add to the aura of corporate cool. “Outdoor advertising is the hot thing right now,” said Vanessa Gruen, director of special projects at the Municipal Art Society, a civic organization dedicated to preserving New York’s aesthetics. “In the age of TiVo, advertisers want ‘fixed eyeballs.’”

Under the cover of construction, ads for some of the world’s biggest brands are taking up residence at many of New York’s most prestigious addresses, including many buildings designated as landmarks. So far, Stringer’s PR campaign seems to have had little affect on the number of illegal ads vying for public attention.

Why do these blatantly illegal ads flourish in plain sight, despite the vocal opposition?

It’s one of those urban paradoxes: Some of the most conspicuous objects in the city are affixed to some of the most famous addresses in town, but it’s not clear to the casual observer how they got there. We know the brand in the ad, we know the address. But the middlemen are the mystery.

Upon further investigation, some of the mystery is revealed: It turns out that the recent construction site blight has a lot to do with a group of firms known as outdoor advertising companies (OAC). Outdoor ad agencies are like real estate agencies for outdoor ad space. They are the brokers who bring landlords and brands together.

According to Chris Carr, the executive vice president of City Outdoor, a national outdoor media firm, OACs form relationships with landlords who want to sell advertising space on their property. Then the OAC sells this space to people who want to put up ads.

When asked whether his company had placed ads on sidewalk sheds in New York, Carr replied, “We have placed ads on construction sites in the past, but it’s a very small part of our business.”

When asked which ads City Outdoor had placed on which construction sites, Carr replied, “That’s confidential.”

In response to a question about the “legal framework” for placing ads on New York City scaffolds, Carr answered, “New York City has regulations in place against shed advertising. There’s the scaffold, and there’s the protection barrier as a shed. So, depending on the neighborhood, there are restrictions.” [Note: According to Jennifer Givner and the DOB website, shed advertising is prohibited throughout the city.

City Outdoor shares an office suite at 1333 Broadway with a company called NPA Wildposting. NPA Wildposting specializes in the faux-guerilla advertising technique known as sniping. The two companies also promote themselves jointly on a single website (www.npacityoutdoor.com). Chris Serino is a sales manager at the Eastern branch of NPA Wildposting and shares a suite with Chris Carr of City Outdoor.

When asked whether NPA has agreements with specific construction site owners to poster their construction sites, Serino said, “Yes, we do,” adding suddenly, “This isn’t something I should ... ” Serino stopped short, then referred New York Press to the Los Angles office of NPA Wildposting. The call to the Los Angeles office was not returned. Adam Salacuse, CEO of Alt-Terrain Media, a Boston-based guerilla marketing and media company, confirmed that NPA is a major player in New York City wild posting, including posters on construction sites.

“NPA does 90 percent of the posters that you see in [New York].” he said, “Here’s the skinny on wild posting: If there’s a frame around the posters, they’re paid spots. Sometimes they have an agreement with construction site owners to poster their sites. For scaffolds under construction, about half the time they do, and half the time they don’t,” Salacuse said.

Titan Outdoor LLC and Van Wagner Communications, two large OACs serving New York, did not return repeated phone calls. Yet, these big players are surprisingly candid about their shed sheathing services on their websites. Titan’s website explicitly offers construction wraps in the New York media market. The site even features a photograph of a Staples shed ad. In another shot, a looming bright green shed exhorts pedestrians to watch the Food Network.

Titan’s website sums up the value of construction wraps as follows: “In many neighborhoods, Construction Wraps are the only way to share your message where other large format Out-of-Home media are zoned out. These oversized spectaculars often dominate a full city block displaying your bold, colorful ad, while achieving unparalleled impact.”

Van Wagner’s website doesn’t offer to place ads on sheds or construction bridges in so many words, but it’s hard to miss the giant disembodied heads of Jennifer Aniston and Jerry Seinfeld on the construction wrap in their Flash media presentation. However, neither Titan nor Van Wagner advertises wild posting.

It turns out that some OACs are exploiting a loophole in the law to avoid the consequences of illegal advertising. The penalty for an illegal ad depends on whether the DOB manages to catch the building owner or the advertising company who placed the ad.

The next time you drive by a billboard, shed ad or pass a telephone kiosk with an ad, look for the logo of the outdoor advertising company that put it up. You should see a sign identifying the company that put up the shed (the wood and metal bridge over the sidewalk that protects pedestrians from dropped tools and falling gargoyle fragments), but you’ll never see a trace of the outdoor advertising company that placed the giant ad there in the first place.

“There are different approaches to policing sidewalk shed ads,” explains Givner. “If the OAC is labeled on the sign, we can issue a violation to the OAC. The fine is $10,000 to $25,000. If it doesn’t have a label, [we] issue the violation to the building owner for 0 to $2,500.”

As Scott Stringer notes, building owners risk these fines because it can be very profitable for them to do so. Advertising Age estimates that illegal ads, including sidewalk shed wraps can bring in $40,000 to $50,000 dollars a month, a figure also cited by the trade journal Media Buyer Planner. Moreover, the DOB has no power to remove illegal ads, even if it issues a citation. “We can’t take the ads down because they aren’t a threat to public safety, and the sheds are considered private property,” Givner explains.

Often, the DOB doesn’t even get to the citation phase. In May, the Municipal Art Society (MAS), who has been fighting illegal ads in New York since 1904, sponsored a contest called “Shoot It Down!” to identify the most egregiously illegal ads in New York. Submissions poured in from all over the city, but MAS narrowed the field to 44 of the worst offenders. Borough President Stringer’s office reviewed the data on 42 of these ads and found that 79 percent of them had never been issued a violation for illegal signage.

Construction advertising is the Wild-West of the media world. Some unscrupulous actors in this unregulated market are making life miserable—and even dangerous—for New Yorkers. Glaring safety violations are becoming commonplace in this unregulated market.

Recently, on Madison Avenue at 42nd Street, someone decided that a shed ad for Enviga energy drinks was more important than the traffic light behind it. When citizens complained, someone cut a keyhole for the sign. The public wasn’t satisfied, so someone enlarged the hole. Finally, the entire ad came down amid public outcry. On October 26, a sidewalk shed laden with an oversized Helio sign collapsed on Lafayette St. near the corner of Prince. Often these oversized parapets are a safety hazard because they catch the wind like giant sails, making the entire structure more likely to collapse. The DOB hasn’t banned oversized parapets yet, but tougher regulations may be on the horizon.

“It’s not a formal policy decision,” said Givner, “but the department has been examining those sheds with large parapet walls. In high wind, they pose a higher safety risk. Our job is to ensure public safety on the construction site. We’re looking to see what size is appropriate.” Some scaffold manufacturers admit to working with building owners to craft these oversized scaffolds to better-display advertising.

Peter O’Farrell, President of the Colgate Scaffolding & Equipment Corp. explains how his family-owned company fills custom requests: “Everything goes through the building owner. If they wanted a higher bridge, they’d have to pay a higher price, for the extra money and the extra labor.”

O’Farrell added that he never deals with OACs directly, and his scaffold company never shares in the revenues from shed advertising. “If there’s going to be advertising on our bridge, that’s always directly between the building owner and the advertising company,” he said. Not everyone is willing to indulge owners’ requests for custom ad-bearing sheds, however. “We do not build scaffolds to accommodate ads,” said Ken Buettner, president of the York Scaffolding Equipment Corp. “I have an aversion to it. It’s an aesthetic blight, and it’s illegal.”

Buettner may be a lonely dissenter in an ad-mad market. The situation may seem hopeless, but there may yet be a crackdown on construction site advertising. An anti-visual clutter measure called Local Law 31, may finally give authorities the tools they need to fight the black market in shed ads. Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill into law in 2005, but the full effect of the measure is only now being felt. The law has two key provisions: First, building owners who lease ads on their premises will be considered outdoor advertising companies. As such, they can be charged a maximum of $25,000 dollars, instead of the current maximum of $2,500.

Second, all outdoor advertising companies must register with the city. OACs that break the law risk losing their licenses and, with them, the right to do business in the city. Unregistered advertisers, including building owners, are subject to stiff fines. The OAC registration period closed Nov. 26. Now that the mandatory registration period is over, the DOB has the authority to impose stiff fines on building owners who wrap their sheds in illegal ads and the outdoor ad companies that help them.

“It’s a valuable tool in our belt,” says Givner. “We hope that the new fines will deter illegal advertising.”

Several outdoor advertising companies are suing the City over LL31, claiming that the law violates their First Amendment rights. Even if the law survives the legal challenges, it remains to be seen whether the DOB will enforce it any more vigorously than the old laws.

However, the new law is grounds for cautious optimism. Perhaps the tough new rules will deter corporate graffiti artists from treating New Yorkers like a captive audience. Maybe landlords will think twice before turning a fast, private buck at the expense of the city landscape. And maybe, just maybe, the measure will help curtail the creeping commercialization of New York City that Scott Stringer calls, “the adification of New York.”

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