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L.A. Official Urges Ban on Rolling Billboards : Ads on Wheels Run Into Flak

Times Staff Writer

Even though it featured George C. Scott, Fox Broadcasting’s TV sitcom “Mr. President” wasn’t drawing hoards of viewers a couple years ago. Looking for a tonic to cure its sickly ratings, the show’s publicists hired Dennis and Steve Williams to create truck-mounted billboards as part of a promotion for the show.

And so it was that three trucks, each decorated with bunting and a billboard advertising “Mr. President” and designed to look like a rolling campaign platform, roamed Los Angeles streets during the spring ratings sweeps weeks in 1987.

The ploy didn’t save “Mr. President.” But it gave the Williams brothers the idea of launching a rolling billboards service as a sideline to their outdoor advertising business, Williams Graphics in Sylmar. Their billboards on wheels division, called Mobile Media, now has six customized trucks that haul around a pair of standard 10-foot by 22-foot billboards and tour prearranged routes for 40 or 50 hours a week to get advertisers’ messages out to specific neighborhoods.

The Williams’ outdoor sign company makes billboards and banners (the company supplied banners for the 1984 Summer Olympics) and did $1.2 million in sales in 1988. And while the billboards on wheels division accounts for just a fraction of their business, the Williams have already lined up a dozen customers who pay from $3,950 to $4,550 a week.

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Dennis Williams, 42, pointed to a chart in his office showing his trucks almost entirely booked throughout most of the summer. “We’ve been just astounded, really, at the response,” he said.

Other Campaigns

His customers include Griffin Homes & Development, which hired Mobile Media to drive through Canoga Park and Hidden Hills past the sales offices of competing developers. The Williams brothers also had a billboard on wheels promotion for a July 4th weekend fair and music festival in Whittier.

And in the fall they start a six-month campaign in Southern California for am/pm mini markets, and they will launch an out-of-state campaign for Camp Beverly Hills’ new cologne, with trucks touring downtown loops of Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas.

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The Williamses aren’t the only ones in Southern California betting that the idea will catch on. Buckeye Epstein’s Huntington Beach-based company, Mobile Billboards Inc., has been sending similar trucks around Los Angeles--and around the country to events such as the Super Bowl and the Indianapolis 500--since 1987 carrying advertising messages from the likes of Valvoline and Citicorp. Epstein’s company has also carried local rolling billboard campaigns for Knott’s Berry Farm and Westec Security.

As it is, the two companies are already fighting a growing sentiment against stationary billboards. And there’s a Los Angeles city ordinance making it illegal for their trucks--or any vehicles being used purely for advertising--to stay parked in one place for long.

But Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude wants to get the mobile billboards off the streets for good. A longtime critic of outdoor advertising, Braude recently introduced a motion calling for a city ban on “mobile or traveling billboards on the streets of Los Angeles.” Braude, whose motion has not yet been acted on by the council, said billboards on wheels “desecrates the public areas.”

Besides his aesthetic objection, Braude said he was worried that the rolling billboards would distract drivers. And he said he was concerned about launching rival fleets of trucks on Los Angeles’ already congested streets--especially trucks that aren’t being used to move people and goods around the city.

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Sees Need for Services

Braude’s campaign is the latest development in a battle over the 18,000 billboards that vie for drivers’ attention in Orange and Los Angeles counties. In 1986, the city of Los Angeles passed its first major ordinance limiting the construction of billboards, despite objections by outdoor advertising executives and some businesses that said they depend on high-visibility street advertising to thrive. Already, some other cities, such as San Diego, have tried to ban future billboard construction.

But Dennis Williams figures that advertisers have “a crying need for a different type of outdoor advertising.” And while ads on buses are popular, they follow fixed routes. Williams can offer a customized advertising route.

His company and Epstein’s have already developed something of a heated rivalry.

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Like admirals of warring navies, each plays down the size of the other’s fleet of trucks. Epstein said Williams had only three trucks. Williams said he has six, and will soon have 10. Williams countered that Epstein’s company owned only two trucks and rented more when they were needed. Epstein said he owned many more but wouldn’t specify a number.

There are differences in the services they offer, though. Epstein recently quoted a price of $3,375 for 50 hours of advertising, compared to Williams’ price of $3,950 to $4,550. Epstein, moreover, offers clients a computer monitoring system that he said verifies that his drivers have followed the routes they’re contracted for. And while Epstein’s company doesn’t make billboards (his clients must have them produced elsewhere) Williams’ company is only too happy to produce reusable vinyl billboards at a cost of $1,100 to $2,800 each.

Another Competitor

Meanwhile, both companies say they’re unfazed by a third competitor in the area who offers yet another type of mobile billboard service. Advan, a San Francisco-based subsidiary of Leucadia Inc., said it has contracts with local delivery-truck owners that allow the company to muster a 275-truck fleet in Los Angeles displaying smaller, 7 1/2-foot by 16-foot signs. Those trucks don’t follow specially tailored routes, but are guaranteed to stick to their normal delivery routes.

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Both Williams and Epstein contend that their trucks would be no more distracting to motorists than stationary billboards, and should have a negligible effect on Los Angeles traffic. Furthermore, both admen say they shouldn’t be singled out for tough legal treatment among the bewildering visual cacophony of existing taxis, city buses, pizza deliverers, and express mail vans that carry advertising messages for both the companies that own them and others.

Besides, both Epstein and Williams argue, moving billboards should actually prove less offensive than stationary ones. Said Epstein: “The greatest thing is that it’s here today, gone tomorrow.”


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