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.”
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.”