Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 31

How Low Can You Go?

Most people think in terms of how “high” a sign can go and still be seen by traffic. But there’s a whole different side to that argument on some sign locations and that’s how “low” you can go and still make the sign effective. This is particularly true in some urban areas where signs were built long ago at very short heights. In this Billboard Mastery podcast we explore what the considerations are when buying or building a really “low” sign.

Episode 31: How Low Can You Go? Transcript


How low can you go? Well, in a limbo contest, that's important. But it's also important sometimes with billboards. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're talking about short signs. Now you don't see a lot of short signs out there in the world. Most signs, the battle seems to be who's taller. But sometimes, particularly in urban markets, you will come upon signs that are fairly low to the ground. So the question is what happens when a sign is very, very short?

Well, let's go over the good things first. When a site is very, very short, it hangs in the window of your car, when you're driving down the street for a really long period of time. Some of the best signs I've ever seen were very, very short. I can even think back of them all the way back in the early days when it had signs in Los Angeles, for example, the most effective signs I saw were signs on Hollywood Boulevard, where they were so low to the ground, maybe with a curve in the road that I could see that sign in my windshield, seemingly forever. So low signs, one good thing is they don't pass over the top of your windshield quickly, but yet, they hang there. And that way, you can read them when you get really close up. So they also have great readability. You can read the fine print on a short sign because when you're sitting there at the traffic light, it's still hanging right there in your field of view.

And that means you also get a much longer read. So as we all know, most advertisers are battling for how much information they can get to the viewer before they lose visibility of the sign, before it passes at the top of their viewing window. But those short signs, you can get a lot of content on there. And people really remember them a lot because they're very, very short, and they just hang there for a long time.

Finally, short signs are very, very unique, because we don't see them very much. Again, you can think about all the short signs you see when you drive around. And I bet it's not many. Most of the signs that stand out in your mind are the ones that are really tall. But there's also ones that are really, really short that you think, Wow, that's a great sign. That's a hugely visible sign.

So then what's bad about short signs? If short signs have so many good attributes, what's bad? Well, there's basically two. Number one, blockage. When your sign is very short, almost anything will block it. All you have to have is a neighbor plant a tree, even a little tree, or maybe put a US flag or their own premise sign. Because almost anything can cause you huge problems. It could be a streetlight. There's no limitations to what might pop up. It could come from the highway department, the street department, neighboring property. So as a result, you're constantly concerned about blockage. Now, the good news is with some short signs, there really isn't much ability to block. Maybe your sign is on a corner and there's nobody around who can get in front of your sign with whatever they have going on. But normally, that's not the case. So you always have to be worried, thinking a step ahead of blockage.

The other issue is vandalism. That was true of the signs back in Los Angeles. Any sign that was short enough to reach, well people would jump up there and they would put graffiti on it. So your sign had to be high enough it could not be easily harmed. Now, not all signs are hard. There are some signs that are shorter in really nice areas of town that are very well lit around them. And there's nothing that ever happens to them. But there's other signs out there that at any given moment, could be subject to being vandalized, I had some short signs that were constantly vandalized when I had my signs in Los Angeles. It got to be so bad that we took the cat walks on them and put barbed wire all the way around them. And it still didn't do any good. People were still able to find ways to get up there. So those are the two negatives of short sides.

So given those two negatives, therefore, is it okay to own a short sign? Well, the key is you have to be smart about it. When you buy a short sign or you build a short sign, you have to know going in that there are risks. On the vandalism side, make sure that no one can reach the sign from the ground, obviously. And also make sure there's no way anyone can shimmy up the pole or the I beam or the telephone pole to get up to that sign without a huge amount of physical effort. Because if it's very low, it's a very, very attractive item for someone to go up and vandalize and put some graffiti on it. So that that won't work for you.

The other problem is blockage. You have to make sure that you have a handle on the potential for blockage, where it might come from and how damaging it would be. There's nothing worse and I've had it happen many times, than owning a sign, particularly a great sign, which suddenly gets ruined by somebody doing something which hampers the view. You almost immediately get a call from the advertiser saying, "What in the world? I'm not paying for that sign? Do you see the thing that's blocking me?" So be prudent when you buy or when you build short signs.

Now 8 sheet signs are typically always short, but they rarely get vandalized because the viewing surface just isn't big enough to turn on most vandals. Those signs stand only normally about 5 by 12 in size. And as a result, they're just not something that you see a lot of vandalism go on. Typically, the signs I've seen that are damaged by vandals are typically much larger signs. And obviously, the neighborhood and where those are positioned has a lot to do with your gauge of how much risk there is. But don't go crazy with those short signs either. If you see a short sign that you can buy or can build, it's very, very expensive, or has very, very high ground rent attached to it just make sure you're not going to get into trouble when you buy that thing, or you agree to pay somebody and spend a lot of money building it, only to find someone suddenly blocks you a month or two months later. And remember that if you see any blockage about to occur, if you see something that would make you get worried, something's happening, maybe breaking ground on a business next door. It's always smart to proactively try and solve those problems. Explain to somebody if they block your side on one side, you'll block them on the other. So you should work together to make sure that both parties signs are clearly visible.

The bottom line is that short signs can be great to own, but they can also be a nightmare. You have to choose when you're buying or building short signs very carefully. It's imperative that you protect your investment by making smart decisions and the risk seems to go up exponentially when the sign is short. This is Frank Rolfe with the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.