Ron Kaye: Naming rights are a sign of the times

Faced with a threatened crackdown on abuses, Burbank Realtors are policing themselves during a “probationary” period to preserve a city ordinance that allows them to put up as many as four 24-by-24 signs announcing a weekend “open house.”

Glendale officials are grappling with how to get rid of unsightly tall poles and oversized signs luring customers to fast food restaurants and other businesses, even as they try to reduce visual blight by approving one digital billboard in exchange for sign companies removing as many as 30 traditional billboards.

Complaints about light pollution from residents in the hills above the Rose Bowl prompted officials to curtail night-time testing of the new scoreboard and electronic signage this summer.

But for every effort to get rid of the proliferation of advertising messages assaulting our eyeballs and powerful lighting that obscures the night sky, public agencies are looking hard for ways to raise revenue from selling sponsorships and naming rights and businesses are seeking ways to enhance their bottom lines and get their messages out to customers.

It’s a sign of these hard economic times that battles over the visual landscape are heating up just about everywhere, from sandwich-board signs offering daily specials to giant digital billboards pulsating with ever-changing ads urging us to buy this or buy that.

Little signs. Big Signs. Signs of all shapes, all sizes, all technologies, all sending a message: buy, buy, buy. Buy products. Buy Services. Buy ideas.

The irony is consumers aren’t buying. People are too nervous about what the future holds, so for the first time in decades they aren’t shopping until they drop and driving the economy. The result is government has less revenue and businesses are competing that much harder to win customers.

“It’s a trade off — what does business need to survive and what is the threshold the public will accept,” Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian, who has been grappling with the signage problem for years. “We’re trying to strike a balance by speeding up removal of old billboards and pole signs and recognizing there are places like at the Galleria and Americana where we have a sign district because it is a downtown urban environment.”

How officials find the balance depends on the community and what the public will bear.

La Cañada school officials have put a price tag for naming rights on just about everything — $1 million for the high school stadium. Presumably, they are hoping for benefactors with big bank accounts and small egos, so the signs recognizing their donations will be discreet, but it’s negotiable when there is a desperate need to keep teachers in classrooms and funding is being cut.

In Los Angeles, officials are trying to steamroll over public opposition to sell advertising in city parks to keep from laying off workers and reducing programs. They call them sponsorships, not advertisements, but the distinction is lost on critics who see tables, benches and buildings plastered with commercial messages.

After 10 years of chaos caused by ill-conceived legislation and legal fights, L.A. officials finally enacted an ordinance to stop the flood of new digital billboards going up in high traffic areas — signs that can generate $1 million or more a year in revenue.

Now, they are seeking to open the door again by creating special sign districts that will give downtown and parts of Hollywood the look of the Ginza in Tokyo with giant blinking digital billboards and skyscrapers embedded with thousands of LED lights.

Social historian and critic D.J. Waldie recently wrote on KCET’s website about L.A.’s “drift toward monetizing public facilities (like selling advertising in parks) and privatizing risks (like shifting sidewalk repairs to property owners).”

“Lost in this hustle,” he said, “is any consideration of the proper role of the city in protecting the common good or equitably sharing its costs.”

As the need for new revenue streams increase on schools and government, along with the competition to attract or retain businesses, officials will be facing greater pressure to justify more sign districts and use more naming rights and sponsorship gimmicks that get around public opposition.

Unlike L.A., where the script is being written by rich and powerful interests and their lobbyists, the politics of smaller cities like Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena are healthier and better balanced, leaving open the question of how the signage issue and so many others play out in the difficult years ahead.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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