WTT? Why haven’t mobile advertising trucks been banned yet?

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Mobile billboard outside Sox Park. Photo by Sabrina Cesas.

[This piece originally ran in Time Out Chicago magazine.]

Q: Twice this past weekend I saw a huge eyesore in the streets: a car driving along with a giant flat screen TV on the back. First of all, this seems like an accident waiting to happen. Secondly, this is not Vegas! It looks trashy and obscene. My question: Is there a certain company that is responsible for dispatching these things all over the city? And is there a way I can stop the madness? — Amanda Petersen

A: A truck cruising the Viagra Triangle with an ad for the Admiral Theater featuring a stripper holding up two cinnamon rolls and the slogan “Hot buns served daily,” could, indeed, prove distracting to drivers. But Rod Harris, CEO of Virginia-based Truck Ads, says the right to operate mobile billboards is a free-speech issue. He adds that advertising trucks, including ones with LED screens, are usually owned by small Mom-and-Pops. “There are probably less than 2,000 [mobile billboard trucks] out of millions of commercial vehicles on the road, so relatively speaking it’s a nit.”

One such company is Tinley Park-based Younker Media, which uses static, backlit vinyl banners for its mobile ads. Owner Brian Younker agrees that the LED signs are a hazard. “They’re dangerous,” he says. “It’s like watching TV while you’re driving.” Younker says he occasionally gets complaints that his own ads are in bad taste, like the one his company drove around the Gold Coast in 2007 for local divorce attorney Corri Fetman featuring sexy images of a partially clothed man and woman and the advice: “Life’s Short. Get a Divorce.”

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In 2008 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti proposed banning mobile billboards, but the ordinance fizzled in City Council. “The ad industry had some high-pressure lobbyists who convinced all the aldermen not to move it forward,” he says. “But lately I’ve heard from other aldermen who feel visual blight is a problem in their wards, so we may pursue this in the future.”

“I think there would be some serious constitutional issues with [a ban],” responds Martin Redish, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University. “If they limited it to commerce as opposed to political expression they might be able to pull it off, but it would be a tough legal fight. It definitely wouldn’t be a slam dunk.”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

15 thoughts on “WTT? Why haven’t mobile advertising trucks been banned yet?”

  1. I don’t think you could ban it based on aesthetics. There would have to be a study proving that they are a distraction that leads to safety problems.

  2. I absolutely think we should ban these. They are bad for the environment. Driving around all day so that people see a billboard is a waste of gas and emissions. The pollution from cars and air conditioners when we need them is bad enough. I would have less of a problem if someone was pedaling a billboard around, so that at least it wouldn’t be burning fuel. But it would be better to ban them altogether, since they are ugly and distracting.

    1. I would definitely have less of a problem with pedal-powered billboards. In a sense these already exist here, since many pedicabs have ads on them.

  3. I was in Marty Redish’s Civil Procedure class in law school, and he is a speech expert, so I doubt he is wrong. It seems to me, however, that a ban would not be an impermissible limitation on speech because it would not be based on the content of the advertising, but rather the manner in which it is being some. Sure, everyone has a right to state his opinion, even if the opinion is an unpopular one. But if you do it in a way that endangers the public health or is annoying, then a ban should be permissible. You can’t announce your opinion over loadspeakers at 3:00 a.m., then complain your rights are violated when the police make you stop.

    1. Thanks! This post is probably about as racy as we will go on this website, for fear of having our Hard-Hitting Sustainable Transportation Blogger cards revoked.

  4. I do not like these trucks, they are large and add congestion to congested streets, in addition to being unsightly. But, thinking out loud, how do you ban them with banning many other trucks? Most corporate delivery trucks feature advertising and logos – McD’s, Walmart, Lowes, etc. Perhaps a ban on trucks featuring marketing messages while not primarily engaged in other commercial activities (such as delivery or people-hauling)? The wording would have to be very careful and nuanced to avoid hitting legitamate trucks while having teeth to acheive its purpose.

    1. I don’t certainly don’t have a problem with truck transportation in general or useful trucks advertising their own companies. The probably with mobile billboards is the trucks don’t don’t have any other function except advertising, so they’re needlessly burning gas and adding to congestion. It shouldn’t be too hard to write an ordinance that specifically targets the trucks, like the ones pictured above, who are built solely to be billboards.

      1. I think Eric is posing the question, how do you distinguish these trucks in the law while still preventing workarounds that people are likely to devise. Do you limit the amount of advertising that can be on a truck, or the amount of time a truck spends on Chicago roads?
        There’s the spirit of the law, and it is obvious what you support a ban of, and there is the letter of the law.

        1. Apparently Fioretti didn’t have problems coming up with the language of the ordinance, just getting it passed. The issue is not the amount of advertising or the time on the roads, but the type of truck, which physically has no other purpose but advertising. However, I’m not sure why it isn’t common practice for legitimate trucking companies to sell advertising space on their vehicles to other companies.

          1. How do you legally define that “type” of trick without encroaching on the “legitimate” types?
            It’d be easy to find his legislation on the City Clerk’s website if it was 2010 or later. Everything before that time is hidden inside PDF files – if you knew the month and year, you’d be one step closer to finding the legislation.

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