Billboards

Bruce A. Jacobs

November 26, 1990|By Bruce A. Jacobs

FOR A COMPANY that makes its living in the public eye, Boisclair Advertising seems to know astonishingly little about the closely related field of public relations.

You know Boisclair Advertising. It's the outdoor advertising firm that has been waging a very public battle with the Schmoke administration over the placement -- and content -- some of some of its billboards in Baltimore. The company, it seems, has found it profitable to place high concentrations of billboards advertising cigarettes and liquor in the midst of some of the city's most drug-ridden, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, many of them black. In so doing, it turns out, the firm has also violated a long-unenforced city law prohibiting residential billboards. Now, amid growing pressure from community groups, the city has decided to enforce the law, and Boisclair is crying foul. Why single us out now, the company cries, when outdoor advertisers in general have been breaking the law for years?

Here's my answer.

I'm in the advertising business, too. I also happen to be an African-American. I've argued many a marketing strategy with many a client. I've second-guessed the reaction of many a target audience. Clients pay me for my advice. But for you folks at Boisclair, today, my advice is free. Call it a professional courtesy. Just stop squawking for a minute, and listen.

Give it up, Boisclair. You can't win.

Cardinal Rule No. 1 in public relations is that you don't enter public arguments that you can't possibly win. The makers of Tylenol, for example, knew this when they wisely took a non-defensive stance during their drug-tampering crisis. The makers of Perrier, hit with a recent benzene scare, realized this as well. And so should you folks at Boisclair. Because, on this issue, you haven't got a prayer. Residents of these poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods are too angry, too terrorized by drug crime, and too fed-up with being stereotyped by the advertising media in general.

The residents also happen, by the way, to be right.

But even if you refuse to admit that you're wrong, Boisclair, if you're smart you'll still follow Rule No. 1 and accept the inevitable.

The only public figures who can disobey Rule No. 1 and still get what they want out of it are statesmen and martyrs. Mahatma Gandhi for example, could stand on principle in an impossible situation and pull it off, although I highly doubt that he'd be in Boisclair's corner on this one. So, too, could Czechoslovakia's President Vaclav Havel, who came to power in a newly democratic country after years as a renegade writer.

But you're no Gandhi, Boisclair. You're just a bunch of guys who put up signs for money. Try to stand on principle here, and people will simply tell you to sit down.

So take my advice, please. Consider your past years of unmolested illegal sign-mongering to be a gift, and stop all of this pointless bleating now that the party's over. Quit trying to pass off greed as some sort of democratic principle of "the Right to Post Billboards." It's silly. It's insulting. And, in the end, you are going to lose.

You are going to lose because urban residents are becoming more and more aware of how the advertising of the legal drug culture -- slinky models with bottles of Scotch and bad dudes with filter menthols -- feeds the psychology of the illegal drug culture. You'll lose because the longer you insist upon targeting poor communities for this kind of marketing, the angrier the people who live there will become. And you will lose, finally, because Mayor and former State's Attorney Kurt Schmoke, after taking up the residents' cry for action, cannot possibly back off now.

Are you billboard guys paying attention?

This lesson's free. But the next time, I'll bill you.

Bruce Jacobs writes from Baltimore.

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