Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A sign on the road ahead: Retailers hire 'human billboards'

Michael Demasi
The Business Review (Albany)

LATHAM, N.Y. - Why was a 21-year-old, laid-off Christmas tree farm hand from a tiny town in northern Pennsylvania standing on a sidewalk along busy Route 7 in Latham for three days straight?

He was a walking billboard for a children's clothing store, 4 Ever Kids.

Cain Dieffenbach is one of the small legion of sign holders hired by local and national retail stores to get the word out--literally--about end-of-season discounts and going-out-of-business sales.

These aren't the people who get paid to dress in funny costumes and wave at cars.

These are the people who get paid to stand on a street corner holding a big sign with bright letters.

That's it.

For hours at a time, as if they're one picketer at a phantom rally.

If they're lucky, as Dieffenbach was during his recent stint, the winter weather is unseasonably mild. Even so, he came prepared with long johns, thermal socks, hunting gloves and a red knit hat that matched his Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers.

Asked how much he gets paid, Dieffenbach said it's about minimum wage. A friend back home owns a small company that offers the sign service, and Dieffenbach figured he could make some money now that the Christmas tree-cutting season is over.

He said the worst part was the five-hour drive from his home in Canton, Pa., to Latham because he gets carsick.

"I could stand still, but I'd rather walk around," the polite, soft-spoken Dieffenbach said as traffic roared by Peter Harris Plaza one day in January.

Although town residents sometimes complain about the practice, Colonie's sign ordinance has no prohibition against it.

"It's a free-speech issue," said Bob Cordell, chief commercial building inspector. "I can't regulate it. I can regulate signs, but I cannot regulate somebody's ability to communicate. ...If the sign is by itself on the ground, that's a different story."

The town of Guilderland takes a completely different stance.

Temporary signs are forbidden without a permit or zoning variance. As a result, Zoning Enforcement Officer Rodger Stone occasionally investigates calls about human billboards, particularly around Crossgates Mall. He said most retailers put a halt to the advertising once they learn about the town's laws, but not everyone agrees to stop.

Whitehall Jewelers in Crossgates is an example. The store has held a liquidation sale for the past couple of months as it prepares to close, one of 77 locations shutting down in the Chicago-based chain.

Stone said he warned Whitehall Jewelers to stop around Christmas, but the signs were back Jan. 23. He wrote an appearance ticket for violating the sign ordinance, an infraction that could result in a fine of several hundred dollars.

In six years, Stone said only two or three businesses have been fined. The charge was dropped in other cases when the violators promised not to do it anymore.

John Pytleski, manager at Whitehall Jewelers, called the ticket "absurd." He said it's not the store's problem, because the sign holders were hired by a liquidation company in charge of the going-out-of-business sale.

Regardless, Pytleski said the prohibition was ridiculous.

"It's not like we're on Madison Avenue or Fifth Avenue in New York City," he said. "This is Albany."


  1. I find it hard to believe that municipalities can legally cite companies for this practice. In my mind, it does become a First Amendment issue when a person holds a sign vs. a sign being displayed by itself on the sidewalk. If it's illegal for a person to hold a sign advertising a store, how is it not illegal for a person to hold a sign advertising a political philosophy?

    I'm all for code enforcement, but Zoning can never regulate the actions of human beings.

  2. Human signs can be cited under nuisance regulations or for placing pedestrians in the highway's right-of-way. it's all a little silly. As long as a person is not throwing themselves into traffic, what is the big deal?

    On my end, Big Green is prohibited by the shopping center from putting up outdoor advertisements, though one day we decorated out office leader's SUV with Big Green ballons and a banner.

  3. I'm grabbing at straws here, but I'm somewhat under the impression that the precedent for such laws was set when people 'espousing strong political philosophies,' especially when using them to implore customers to boycott certain businesses on principle, were banned from storefronts by the same nuisance laws that apply here.

    e.g. I stand outside of a Gap, imploring customers to boycott the store and its affiliates because of abominable labor practices in the third world. I do so noiselessly and with some visual media to illustrate my point. Brilliant political tactic in a world where the general populace is not only increasingly ignorant of corporate practices, but powerless to do anything about them. So a bunch of nuisance ordinances are passed, keeping these rabble-rousers away from malls and storefronts. Who lobbied for that one? hmmmmmmm.... it's coming to me, give me a sec.

    So it's not without precedent that sandwich-board guys should fall under the same jurisdiction.

  4. When you think about it, that is true. Great insight.