Thursday, April 28, 2011

Signs of the Times

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.
— Five Man Electric Band ( I think)

Have you noticed the number of people standing along carbon monoxide-choked highways and at busy intersections, holding signs, prancing about in front of businesses? They are trying to entice drivers to pull in for a Mexican-food meal, a massage, vitamin supplements, or a car wash, to name a few I have seen. These were called sandwich boards back in the Depression when folks paced sidewalks with signs strapped over their shoulders covering both sides of their body in an a-frame fashion.

Hoo boy. I know people need jobs. The unemployment rate is still far too high. McDonalds just held its widely publicized National Hiring Day with the goal of adding 50,000 new workers. As of this writing, I don’t know if the burger behemoth was successful. I am quite certain I would rather work at Mickey Ds than stand out in the hot sun, eating exhaust while waving a sign at passersby.

Admittedly I am biased when it comes to what type of advertising I think works best. I have been in the newspaper business since Lyndon Johnson was about to leave office, most families had black-and-white televisions, and newspapers were about four feet wide when spread open. But I’ve never believed that newspapers are the only place folks should advertise. I always tell folks who ask that a mix of different media likely work best, depending on the type of business.

But there are some goofy places that folks spend their advertising dollars, and hiring some poor soul to stand out and wave a sign doesn’t seem a terribly efficient way to reach one’s target market.

I guess I’m glad it provides jobs for folks who probably would not be working, since the skill level required isn’t terribly high. But the economics don’t make much sense to me. I saw four guys holding signs along Highway 183 and 620 the other day for the same business. Let’s say the business is paying each only minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. And let’s assume those poor souls are out there eight hours a day, five days a week. That totals $1,160 a week being paid out to people holding signs on street corners, which can barely be read by motorists whizzing by at 50 mph while talking on their cell phones. Give me that $1,160 a week and I’ll put together a nice ad campaign in the newspaper and even let you have a little — not much — left over to run some radio spots.

A search online using “holding signs in front of businesses” led me to, which uses homeless people to attach advertising placards to their panhandling signs. If you go to the site, it shows photos of folks who are down on their luck holding their crudely-lettered signs — “Need Food. Please Help,” and the like. Attached to the bottom is a professionally printed sign for “Strategic The Game of all Games.”

The now 28-year-old Seattle entrepreneur who came up with this idea didn’t return my e-mail, so it isn’t clear to me if is still in existence.
The last post was in 2005 so probably not. I’m always glad to see folks down on their luck make money, but “bumvertising?”

Again, that doesn’t sound to me like a great business plan, especially since calling someone a bum isn’t exactly a compliment.
And a placard attached to a poor homeless fellow’s “Need change for the bus stop” sign isn’t exactly going to entice me to visit a website.
I also don’t understand buying ads on park benches or restaurant tabletops.

Be honest. Have you ever decided to buy a product or use a service because you saw an ad plastered under your basket of fries? I think not.
And if someone is using the park bench as intended, you can’t see those ads either because they’re obscured by somebody’s backside.

I know everybody is just trying to get by these days best they can. And I do admire some of the dance routines displayed by the more energetic placard holders.

Some of them know some pretty slick steps.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), April 27, 2011.


  1. I went to an Astros game last night, and three poor fools were dressed up as Taco Bell hot sauce packets. The indignity grew as they were forced to race each other around the ballpark. Fire won, beating out Hot and Medium by just a smidge.

  2. I would have bet on hot. Just sayin'.