Friday, March 27, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The rolling billboards that have become so prevalent on the Strip are unpopular with some parents because of the questions the signs prompt from children who want to know what “girls direct to your room” means.
Motorists and cabdrivers complain about the signs-on-wheels clogging traffic. Critics say the signs are creating air and eye pollution without serving any transportation purpose.
But proponents of the mobile billboards counter that they serve a vital economic purpose, helping to beat back the recession by creating jobs and providing fairly inexpensive and effective advertising for businesses.
Those same arguments have been made in courtrooms across the country, with varying results.
In the fall in Naples, Fla., a judge ruled against Collier County and said a mobile billboard ban is unconstitutional. The county paid the company $225,000 for lost revenue.
But also in the fall, Los Angeles’ 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled just the opposite, saying West Hollywood’s ban is constitutional.
Hawaii’s outlawing of mobile billboards dates to 2006, and has held up so far. Austin, Texas, enacted a ban in 2008.
Some would like to see one here too. Clark County is home of the second-largest mobile billboard company in the country, Big Traffic Mobile Billboards. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America estimates mobile sign companies in Las Vegas earn revenue of $3 million to $5 million per year.
But they have an enemy in Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who notes that they clog and obscure Las Vegas’ National Scenic Byway (the Strip) and they are mostly unregulated.
That some of them advertise “hot babes” isn’t a concern, she said. “This is not a content issue.”
She added that while buses and taxis are also plastered with advertisements, “at least they are transporting something.” The billboard trucks deliver nothing but a sales pitch.
County ordinances regulate where commercial trucks of 50,000 pounds or more can operate but say nothing about the lightweight trucks that mobile billboard companies typically use. Giunchigliani said police have told her they don’t always have time to verify the parameters of a truck they think might go beyond another ordinance that restricts an advertisement’s square footage.
“So I decided a blanket ban is the way to go,” she said.
To that end, Giunchigliani sought the help of Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, a Democrat representing Las Vegas — and a Clark County employee. Atkinson is chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, and Giunchigliani hoped he would get a bill draft to his committee. Through a staff member, Atkinson said the bill did not get introduced simply because it was not drafted in time. Asked why, the staffer said “no one knows.”
Sources close to the process, however, say Atkinson ended his effort to push for the bill draft because state lawyers cited too many potential legal pitfalls. Another source said the bill might later be resurrected as an amendment. Others say there is no stomach to field the bill and get into a potential First Amendment tiff when more pressing budgetary matters are at hand.
“So I should just stop because other people say it won’t pass?” Giunchigliani asked rhetorically. “I don’t operate that way. I think it’s an important issue.”
So does Marla Letizia, founder of Big Traffic Mobile Billboards, who was in Carson City this week to try to ensure Giunchigliani’s idea does not wind up as an amendment to some other bill.
Letizia is passionate about the company she founded with one truck eight years ago. Her business now has 13 trucks, employs 120 people and has grown 30 percent in the past year. To combat the argument that the signs would obstruct or interfere with the interests of casino operators on the Strip, she cites a client list that includes Harrah’s and MGM Mirage.
“These companies are desperate for point-of-purchase advertising,” Letizia said. “There are 250,000 people who walk up and down the Strip and our product is guaranteed to be right in front of them.”
Prices vary, but one mobile ad going up and down the Strip 14 hours a day can cost $1,000. Contracts can be signed for shorter stints. And beyond human sandwich boards, there are few opportunities anywhere on the Strip to advertise, even though handbillers for outcall services are allowed to work there.
Letizia said she is hurt by Giunchigliani’s effort and notes that Big Traffic competes for customers with buses operated by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, many of which are also plastered with advertisements. The RTC is overseen by a multi-jurisdictional board whose members include city representatives and county commissioners. Giunchigliani sits on the board. Indeed, on a recent Tuesday evening in front of Mon Ami Gabi, four double-decker buses passed by during the same 10-minute period in which six billboard trucks passed.
“So a publicly operated organization is competing against us for business,” Letizia said. “Is that right?”
Letizia stressed that her company does not advertise the “hot babes” ads and hates being lumped in with them. The owner of the company that runs those ads could not be reached for comment.
But truth be told, not everyone on the Strip is bothered by the ads, including 32-year-old Puma Stangle, in town from Sedona, Ariz. “There’s such a bombardment of advertising down here,” Stangle said as a “hot babes” truck idled. “You kind of expect it. Then you don’t even notice it.”