Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 14

When An Advertisement Becomes A Liability



As a billboard owner, you are the official gatekeeper of the content on your sign. But sometimes your choice of content can cause extreme problems – possibly even start in motion the eventual loss of your billboard location. In this Billboard Master podcast we’re going to review how an advertisement can potentially get you in a lot of trouble and how to avoid this situation. In a politically correct America, this topic is more important than ever before.

Episode 14: When An Advertisement Becomes A Liability Transcript

When is a billboard advertisement actually a liability? It's a great question, because you, as the sign owner are the gatekeeper of the content on that sign, and sometimes your choice can really hurt you badly if you don't really think about it. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're going to be discussing this very unique issue, which is, "What kind of content is acceptable to go up on a sign, and what kind of content do you put on that sign might have really, really grave misfortune for you going forward?" I first ran into this issue many, many years ago.

I had a billboard that was sitting around empty, and I had a call from someone who wanted to put an ad on it. Didn't think much about it. They seem like an okay advertiser. It was a car dealership. Of course, the problem was my property owner was also a car dealership, so I agreed to put the ad on, and as soon as the ad went up, yeah, you can guess that the car dealer called me up and said, "What in the world are you doing?"

"You can't put another car dealership ad up on my dealership," and I said, "Well, but it's not your brand. It's a different brand. You're a Ford dealer. It's a Chevrolet," and they said, "No, you idiot. It doesn't matter."

"They're trying to sell cars to the same customer, so now, all my friends, all my customers are going to think that somehow I'm supporting the concept of buying a Chevrolet." Well, that was a definite rookie error, so I thought, "Well, okay. Memo to file, don't put up advertisers of the same industry on a sign of someone in that same industry. Okay, that's an easy one." Then, not long after that, I did it all over again.

This time, though different. I had a call from someone who wanted to put up an adult bookstore ad on a sign in the parking lot of a motel. "Okay. Well, not in the same industry, so what the heck? Let's go ahead and do it."

I put up the ad and lo and behold, next thing you know, I'm in the city newspaper, as is the motel, because the city is irate that someone put up an adult bookstore ad on a sign in their city limits, so now, I've launched that property owner to all kinds of misfortune, is damaging his business because of my selection of content I could put up on the sign. Then, years later, I had someone who called me up, wanting to put a political ad on a billboard, so I put up the political ad, and yeah, you can guess it, it was someone who hated that political group, and as a result, just kept calling me up, and whining and complaining, and wanting me to remove it, and everything else known to man, because I was putting up a political message that was exactly in complete contrast to their political beliefs, so I learned the hard way after that, that I wasn't going to be putting up any controversial ads or any ads that compete on signs because I saw what a problem that could become. How do you then, if we assume there is content on signs that is objectionable, let's put that into different categories so we can stay out of trouble? Number one, political ads. After my political ad foray, I realized that I couldn't get involved in them anymore.

The first problem was political ads are very, very short-term. Normally, when they want to put up an ad for an election, they only want to do it for just a few months. It doesn't really work for me because I want advertisers who can be on there for the long haul, not just for a few months, but the other problem is there's so many political forces at play when you put up a political ad, some many problems that can be derived from your property owner being unhappy, just wasn't worth it to me anymore, so I banned all political ads. Then, I also realized that, "You know what? I probably should ban adult bookstores and that type of advertising," so once again, I realize, "If I'm going to put up something like that, if I'm going to put up a topless club or something to that genre, I can't do that, unless my property owner is 100% onboard with me."

Going forward, if I ever had anyone who wanted to advertise that kind of business, first call I would make would be to the property owner saying, "Hey, I had this call. I love to write the sign, but what's your thoughts on this?" If they said, "I don't like it," well, then forget it. Wasn't going to do that either. As far as competitive advertising, well, that was just common sense and I was stupid to do that in the first place.

Clearly, you should not put up a billboard for McDonald's in the parking lot of a Burger King or vice versa. Once again, clearly, that was a bad decision, so there's some forms of content that you just have to not utilize. That's the first takeaway, is you just don't want to get involved in every ad out there. People will want to use your sign to promote what they want to promote, but there's some things you just shouldn't be promoting out there on a sign. Number two, if there's any gray area at all, don't ask forgiveness over permission.

Ask permission. Go to the property owner and say, "Hey, I've got somebody who wants to put up this ad and I want to make sure that you don't find it objectionable." If they say, "No. I do. I don't like the idea at all," then just don't do it.

If they say, "Oh, okay," then we can do it. Now, let's however, go to the other extreme. Let's assume the property owner takes offense at everything, every advertiser. That's why a good billboard, [Grantly 00:05:58] says in it, that they will not withhold the use of the content. That's only in the reasonable judgment of being offensive, because you can't have it where they say every single advertiser, "I don't want them."

"I don't want a bank. I don't believe in banks. I don't want that Chevy dealer. I hate Chevrolets. I don't want any ad known to man. I don't want a home builder because I hate that home builder," and that won't work for you either.

You can't have your signs sit there and be vacant 24 hours a day, seven days a week just because the advertiser hates everyone on earth, so you've got to cut a happy medium here. I have found that most people are pretty darn reasonable if you treat them with respect, so if I go to the advertiser and I make sure I do not put up any political message or any hot topic advertiser that could get them in trouble from a PR perspective, or a competitor, that normally I'm in the end zone, but if you ever violate that rule, if you ever screw up like I did and put up the wrong ad on that sign, you're going to have problems with that property owner maybe forever. Thereafter, every ad you're going to put up, they remember how much trouble you got them in last time, and they don't want to repeat that, so you always should be asking permission rather than forgiveness. Let's talk for a minute what the negative ramifications are if you fail to do this. If you just start popping up ads without thinking twice on what you're putting up there, here's what will happen, property owner is going to hate you.

When the property owner hates you, bad things happen. They happen right now in far as operations. Suddenly, when you go out there to try it and put up the new ad, they say, "Oh, no, you can't go out there right now, you know? I can't have you out in the property right now. Now we've got this or that going on." Right, or they start harassing you.

"Oh, you put up that new ad on there, but on the way out, I think your truck hit one of our trees and broke a branch off, and I want you to now pay for a whole new tree," or whatever the case may be, so it's very unhappy living when you're stuck with a property owner who doesn't like you, because they can find fault in almost everything you do, and that's very unpleasant. Sometimes it can even manifest themself with them doing things to damage your business. For example, putting up an American flag that kind of blocks your sign, planting the tree that kind of blocks your sign. Not allowed under the lease, but now you're back in another fight with the property owner, so you don't want it either, but the bigger one, more than things they will do to interrupt you on your regular day-to-day efforts is the long-term damage, because one day, your billboard lease will come up for renewal, and you'll go to them and say, "Hey, I want to renew my billboard lease," and they'll say, "There's no way I'm going to renew that billboard lease. Do you remember when you put up that ad that I hated 10 years ago?"

"Ever since then, I vowed that when the signed lease came up, I'd never work with you again, so get rid of your sign," or they may hardball you as far as how much money they want, because frankly, they don't like you anyway, so when you say, "Well, I can't do it at that price. If that's the price, I can't renew the sign," they'd be like, "I don't care. Just take it down because I don't like you anyway." For the long-term perspective of how long your sign even lasts, all of that can be set in motion. All those terrible things can be set in motion by the simple act of putting up an ad that they don't like, so what's the moral to all this?

The moral to all this is you've got to think just like NBC or CBS. "What kind of programming can you allow on your channel?," and be very sensible and be a strong gatekeeper. Don't prey to weakness. Don't say, "Well, the sign's empty. I really want to get an advertiser," and, "Yeah, I should not put up that ad because it's offensive, but gosh, darn it, I want the money."

Don't do it. It's not worth it long-term. Yeah, okay, sure. Maybe you're going to get a few hundred dollars a month, but you're going to regret it. It's never ...

Those kind of decisions never work when you take short-term, immediate cash gain for the long-term. It's a terrible, terrible trade-off, so you've just got to take your role more seriously as being in charge of programming on that sign, and every bit of content that goes on there thereafter, you have to be a very strong steward of what goes on there. What's the moral? The moral is ask permission, not forgiveness. Don't even ask permission if you know it's a stupid idea.

Be a stronger gatekeeper of your content, and if you do those things, you'll have no problems with the property owner, and the big dividend there is you'll have a long and happy lease on their property. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.