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City Advertising Cops Are ‘New York’s Signest’

illuminated floating billboard at night.
A floating billboard in Shanghai. Photo by Mats Linander.

It is not unusual to spot a small plane towing an advertising banner up and down the beaches near my South Florida home. This commerce is generally harmless, occasionally interesting and only rarely tragic, as when one craft flew too low and struck a condo tower last month, killing the pilot.

You can’t fly advertising banners over the heart of New York City where I grew up – the tall buildings and terrible memories of 9/11 see to that – but you can float them on the waterways that surround Manhattan and draw millions of locals and tourists to the de-industrialized shorelines each year.

Or at least, a Florida company figured you can try.

Ballyhoo Media, Inc. took to New York’s waterways in fall 2018, with barges that feature pairs of massive LED screens. The vessels circle Manhattan from their launch point on the Hudson River, south around the Battery and then up the East River in a U-shaped pattern. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration filed a lawsuit to put a stop to it, claiming that Ballyhoo’s “Times Square-style billboards” on the water had repeatedly violated local laws and posed a danger to drivers who might be distracted by their presence. The city said it warned the company to stop operation in January and is now seeking penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, per day.

“Our waterways aren’t Times Square. These floating eye-sores have no place on them,” de Blasio said in a statement.

A variety of New York officials and lawmakers expressed support for the mayor’s position and outrage at the floating advertisements. Everyone knows that massive illuminated ads don’t belong in the Hudson River; keep them five blocks east in Times Square, where they belong.

For its part, Ballyhoo has indicated it has every intention of fighting City Hall. The firm said it consulted legal experts before beginning operations in NYC and is confident that it is operating legally. Ballyhoo CEO Adam Shapiro said in a statement: “Ballyhoo has proven to provide unique, one-of-a-kind experiences that has been received with overwhelmingly positive community support. We are confident that New York City will see the value and excitement we bring to the waterfront.”

Despite appearances, the city’s signage gendarmes are not picking on invading Floridians and our boorish waterside habits. Well, not exclusively anyway. In at least one Queens neighborhood, it is no longer easy to distinguish the butcher from the baker or the candlestick-maker in the wake of a municipal ticket blitz. Local business owners report that the Department of Buildings has issued fines of up to $5,000 for signs or awnings that lack permits or are not up to code, with no grace period to make adjustments. When contacted by a local CBS affiliate, the department said that it was obligated to follow up on anonymous complaints from the area. The situation is similar in some parts of Brooklyn.

All of this seems a little odd in the city that is not only home to Times Square (America’s pale imitation of Tokyo’s Shibuya district) and Madison Avenue, but which also has a rich history of printed, painted and electrified signage throughout the boroughs.

Old photos show electric signs for General Motors and U.S. Rubber Corp., among others, lighting the night over Central Park even before the Great Depression. A famous sign advertising the Watchtower (a publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) loomed on the Brooklyn waterfront for nearly half a century until recently, facing the same stretch of the lower East River and the FDR Drive that the city is currently litigating. I never heard of a car crash being blamed on drivers distracted by the Watchtower sign. When you live in New York, you learn to tune out pretty much everything.

Going back even further, the city was once home to countless advertising signs that were painted on the sides of buildings. Though steadily disappearing, even today the survivors of those early advertisements give a welcome peek back into the days when the city’s small business sector consisted more of stables and haberdashers than of coffee houses and escape rooms. Those old signs had their contemporary critics, too; they generally are appreciated more in retrospect. And at least one Brooklyn-based ad agency is betting that the Instagram generation may be ready for a revival of hand-painted advertising.

A local Patch website published a photo that the city submitted with its lawsuit, showing a barge cruising past Battery Park, with its view of the Statue of Liberty, displaying an electronic image of the Grinch. “New Yorkers totally get me,” the Grinch proclaims in the advertisement.

They sure do. If he chose to move to the city, Mr. Grinch could readily find employment with the sign police.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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