Ethics 101: Advertising on Illegal Billboards

BILLBOARD WATCH-When an advertisement touts a company’s ethical values, it’s always wise to remember that you are being sold something. 

This thought was brought to mind by a billboard (photo) featuring the latest campaign by American Apparel, the company that provided recent media fodder with a nasty fight between its founder and board of directors. The ad is all white text on a black background, with the declaration, “We’re not politically correct—But we have good ethics.” And in smaller letters, “American Apparel is Made in Downtown LA Sweatshop Free. Fair Wages.” 

These claims could ostensibly be verified, or the company could just be given the benefit of the doubt, but even then an ethical question would remain, because that billboard is one of hundreds belonging to Lamar Advertising that the city has identified as lacking any permits. And not only are those billboards unpermitted, the predecessor company to Lamar agreed in a lawsuit settlement nine years ago to remove each and every one of them. 

One could say that this reflects upon the ethics of Lamar Advertising (as well as the city’s failure to enforce the terms of its agreements), but ask what it has to do with the ethics of American Apparel, which paid an advertising agency to develop a marketing campaign but most likely had nothing to do with decisions about where those ads would be placed. 

Indeed, the prevailing view among advertisers appears to be that once an ad campaign is out the door, so to speak, responsibility for where and how it is shown to the public on billboards and other signs belongs to someone else. 

For example, when rogue sign companies were putting illegal, building-size supergraphic signs around the city a few years back, the advertisers were almost all prominent companies like McDonald’s, Chase Bank, Samsung, Pepsi, along with movie studios and TV networks. Some persons offended by these signs put up without any permits and safety inspections complained to advertisers as well as to city authorities, and while these complaints were met with almost universal silence, one company representative did respond by saying that the company had no control over the actual placement of outdoor ads. 

Aggressive action by former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich resulted in the scofflaw sign companies taking down those supergraphic signs and getting out of town, although not before Trutanich extracted millions in penalties from several offenders. 

But for advertisers who arguably enabled this illegal activity by paying for advertising they surely knew would appear where it wasn’t allowed there were no consequences—no fines, no lawsuits, no public censure. 

There’s scant chance that American Apparel will fare any differently. 

Unpermitted Lamar Advertising Billboard in West L.A. 

One of hundreds of illegal supergraphic signs put up in LA in the past decade. This one and others were removed after court cases were resolved in the city’s favor.


(Dennis Hathaway is the president of the Ban Billboard Blight coalition.  He can be reached at: Dennis@banbillboardblight.orgPhoto credit:  Hunter Kerhart, courtesy LA Conservancy



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Vol 12 Issue 84

Pub: Oct 17, 2014