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An Inside Look at Outdoor Graphics

(April 2010) posted on Tue Mar 23, 2010

This roundtable discussion sheds light on issues and trends in a variety of outdoor-advertising applications.

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By Ben P. Rosenfield

Jeff Golimowski You have a federal overlay, then you have a state overlay, then you have a local overlay. Each one of those levels tends to get stricter the farther down you go. The feds give broad guidelines. The states refine those guidelines. The communities then refine those guidelines even more based on community standards. And the regulations vary. For example, if you advertise medicine or pharmaceuticals, there are huge regulations on that—so much so that it’s extraordinarily difficult to put those types of ads on billboards. But they can appear in bus shelters.

Myron Laible There are two different tracks in the regulatory environment. You have the federal Highway Beautification Act for size, lighting, and spacing. You have very specific criteria that go from the feds to the states and down to the localities. States and localities can be stricter. Signs on rights-of-way or on publicly owned land are different issues, and many times they have very specific content restrictions.You must have a permit to be located on private property for a billboard. You have to go through a whole checklist and application process to be located on that parcel of land. For bus shelters, for example, you’re talking about contracts between a company and the actual locality, the government unit. The government unit gets funds for the right for that company to operate on their premises.

Are print providers at risk for liability?

Jeff Golimowski I can tell you that I’ve never heard of it happening. The likelihood of a printer running afoul of content restrictions or anything like that would be infinitessimal. Content restrictions don’t really come into play in most billboard cases. The reason for that is billboards have some protections under the first amendment. They’re not the same protections that an individual has, but there is some protection there. It is very difficult for communities and states to pass true content restrictions and say you can post X but you can’t post Y. In transit and buses, because that is a contractual obligation, the cities can put whatever they want into the contract because the two parties enter into that contract willingly.

Myron Laible Probably not, because the locality would cancel the permit for the right to have the billboard, or in the case of working with a locality directly on a right-of-way, they would cancel the contract. From our standpoint, we want to make sure we have speech that is appropriate to the needs and that fits the mores of the community, so you don’t go out and just go overboard with some pretty flagrant speech.

What should a print provider know before taking an outdoor-advertising job?

Myron Laible Is the product legal? That’s basic, but we’re seeing some issues where the product could be quasi-legal. You also get into health-related issues. From the health standpoint, the ads for pharmaceuticals may require some disclaimers or warning labels. Here’s another example. In Virginia, you cannot advertise beer or any other alcoholic beverage on billboards. But you can have P-O-P ads in grocery stores—inside ads as opposed to outdoor ads—and that’s because the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has dictated that you can’t advertise those products outdoors. That’s an instance where there’s a real technical application of a specific product that’s not allowed, and it’s a state regulation.

Jeff Golimowski I don’t think that there is a lot of legal exposure on behalf of printers, but what I do think is the more the printers know about content restrictions, the better off they are. If a printer can go to a client and inform them that their advertisement lacks a required disclaimer, the customer will see the printer as a friend and as a good company to be working with. It’s one of those things where it can’t really hurt you, but it can certainly help you to know the various restrictions on content at a federal level and the various rules.


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