Move to tear down billboard gives its fans a slow burn

August 21, 1991|By Maya Bell | Maya Bell,Orlando Sentinel

MIAMI -- A dispute is brewing over a 32-year-old billboard, only in this case the corporate owners want to tear it down and preservationists want to keep it.

Health-conscious company officials are thinking about tearing down Miami's most beloved billboard -- the pigtailed Coppertone kid and her mischievous little dog on Biscayne Boulevard.

But, Miami preservationists say, removing the sign of the cocker spaniel pulling down the bathing suit of the little girl would fly in the face of history.

"I think Coppertone needs to do some rethinking, because the public's opinion is that they love that sign," said Louise Yarbrough, executive director of the Dade Historic Trust, who wrote an impassioned, two-page, save-the-sign plea to David Collins, president of Schering-Plough HealthCare Products in Liberty Corner, N.J.

So far, that's just what Schering-Plough is doing. Work orders to remove the Biscayne Boulevard sign, as well as one near Miami International Airport, have been temporarily halted.

But officials with Schering-Plough say the "Don't be a paleface" and "TAN don't burn" themes of the neon sign are out of tune with the "sun smart" message the company wants to send now that skin cancer is linked to sun exposure.

"We don't use those slogans anywhere, except in those signs, anymore," said company spokesman Doug Petkus. "They fly in the face of the protection message we feel is important these days."

Preservationists usually don't give a hoot about billboards, but the boulevard sign is no ordinary billboard. The familiar image on the northern edge of downtown is a piece of Americana, a pop-art icon that has become a part of the visual cityscape.

"It's the most important sign in all of Dade County, and I don't want to see it come down," said Jerry Bengis, whose family business has maintained the billboard since it went up. "Everybody loves that sign, even billboard-haters. Any time anybody says something bad about billboards in Miami, they always say, 'Except for the kitschiness of the Coppertone girl.' "

Covering the southern side of the 13-story Parkleigh House, an ++ apartment and office building, the Coppertone sign is more than a nostalgic reminder of simpler days gone by. It is, Ms. Yarbrough points out, a piece of Miami history. And Miami was, after all, where Coppertone, the leading seller in the $150 million sun-protection industry, was born.

Concerned that bone-white tourists baking in the sun might be ** damaging their skin, Miami Beach pharmacist Benjamin Green began cooking concoctions of cocoa butter in his wife's coffee pot in the early 1940s. Mr. Green tested each batch on his balding head and, when he was satisfied, began selling the first commercial suntan product in 3-ounce jars in November 1944. The following year, he created the "Don't be a paleface" slogan.

When Schering-Plough acquired Coppertone in 1957, company officials asked New York artist Joyce Ballantyne to draw the little girl and dog. Ms. Ballantyne, now 73 and a resident of Ocala, Fla., used her 3-year-old daughter, Cheri, and the dog next door as models.

"I had a cute little girl, but my dog was a big, old German shepherd. So I had to borrow the dog," she said. "I never dreamed they'd become such an enduring image."

Ms. Ballantyne says she receives no royalties for the logo, which appears on Coppertone's Water Babies sunblock for children.

Daughter Cheri Brand, now 35 and a manager of health spas in Ocala, doesn't have an emotional attachment to the Miami sign, but she's sentimental about the logo.

She says she's proud to be part of an advertising campaign that has withstood the test of time -- even though that durability means that almost everybody is familiar with her tush.

"If I get teased, I suppose I would blush, but what child doesn't have a photo like that in their album?" she asked. "Mine just happens to bemore public."

Whether it will remain public on Biscayne Boulevard or on six other permanent Coppertone billboards in Florida remains to be seen. Though emphasizing that no final decision has been made, Mr. Petkus said Schering-Plough was considering the demolition its billboards for marketing, as well as health, reasons.

Company officials think they might get better return on their advertising expenditures if they reallocate the money spent on billboards to television or print ads.

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