L.A. to ad firm: Off the wall

Times Staff Writer

It was a bum wrap.

At least that's what Los Angeles officials concluded after the owners of a partly vacant downtown building agreed to have it outfitted with a bright, skintight orange vinyl advertisement for a high-tech mobile phone.

An earlier rendition at the same location, at 2nd and Spring streets, featured a similarly eye-catching automotive ad that apparently eluded the scrutiny of code enforcement inspectors.

Not so for the phone ad, which was ordered removed because it violated a 2003 city ban on such "super-graphic" signage, enacted for aesthetic reasons and to halt the proliferation of billboards.

So it came down last week, costing Inwindow Outdoor more than $20,000 in lost materials and labor, plus an undisclosed amount of income from the advertiser.

The New York advertising company specializes in "storescapes": high-quality computer-generated ads that in effect shrink-wrap buildings. Originally applied only to windows, they now enable advertisers to pitch their products, literally, from the ground up.

Vahn Babigian, general manager of Metropolitan News Co. -- whose parent, Grace Communications Inc., owns the building -- said the colorful vinyl wrap was intended only as a temporary measure until a new tenant was found to fill the vacant space. In the meantime, he said, it not only spiffed up the structure but also protected it from vandals.

"While we're trying to fill it, it brings in a little income," he said before the ad was removed. "And there is a huge graffiti problem down here."

The proliferation of such ads, including even larger versions that sometimes cover multistory buildings from top to bottom, are decried by critics as yet another blight on the urban landscape.

"Outdoor advertising companies are virtually consuming our cities with these enormous vinyl signs," said Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

Unlike television, radio and print advertising, which can be switched off or easily ignored, Fry said, giant outdoor ads such as building wraps command the attention of passersby.

"It's the only form of advertising where you have no choice whether to consume it or not," he said. "You are forced to see their stuff whether you want to or not."

Inwindow Chief Executive Steve Birnhak said he was not trying to turn downtown Los Angeles -- or anywhere else -- into the next Times Square. He said that his company's ad wraps were applied only to empty spaces and that they enhanced the locales where they were placed.

"These are vacant retail spaces that are typically dead and depressing-looking," he said, "We revitalize them and give them energy."



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