I was driving north on Interstate 45 in Houston one afternoon when I first noticed it: a huge inflated blue gorilla, dopey-eyed, scratching its head and smiling on the roof of a Nissan dealership. A couple of miles ahead, a giant green dinosaur with its tongue dangling out of its gaping jaws hovered menacingly over a Cricket cell phone store.
Car dealerships and cell phone stores are two of the biggest employers of inflatable advertising in Houston. That is, they were – until this year. A revised section of the city’s Code of Ordinances went into effect in 2010, banning the following: “banners; cut out figures; discs; festooning, including tinsel, strings of ribbons, and pinwheels; inflatable objects, including balloons; non-governmental flags; pennants; propellers; steam- or smoke-producing devices; streamers; whirligigs; wind devices; blinking, rotating, moving, chasing, flashing, glaring, strobe, scintillating [really?], search, flood or spot lights; or similar devices.” Violation of the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $500 for every day one of these “attention-getting devices” is displayed.
The reason for the ban? The ordinance claims that the attention-getting devices “could pose substantial problems of traffic safety similar to and, in many instances, more serious than, conventional commercial advertising signs.” Oh yeah, and they’re ugly. Or as the ordinance puts it, their use “contributes to urban visual clutter and blight and adversely affects the aesthetic environment” of the city.
“To me, they’re trying to be the fashion police,” said Lonnie Mercer, Director of Operations at Texas Boys Balloons. His company has been hit hard by the ordinance, going from about forty balloons to only eight or nine.
Mercer is concerned not only with his own business, but also the small businesses that his company helps represent, businesses that can’t afford other means of advertising. “They have to find a means of advertising that works for them,” he said. “That’s what we provide, a cost-effective form of advertising.” Billboards can cost upwards of $3,000 just to be printed, and that’s before installation fees, permit costs, and the rental of space. In contrast, inflatable ads cost between $1,000 and $1,500 a month, and according to Mercer, can increase a business’s floor traffic by 30%. “But the city is saying, ‘We don’t like the way they look. Take them down.’”
Prior to the full ban, there was an ordinance on the books that regulated the content of attention-getting devices. They were not allowed to be product-specific – for instance, a McDonald’s could not display a huge balloon Ronald McDonald; written signs could only say things like “Big sale!” and “Clearance!” In 2006 Jim Purtee, then-owner of Houston Balloons & Promotions, sued the city over that ordinance, claiming that it was arbitrarily enforced and violated his business’ constitutional right to free speech. U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore agreed, and the city awarded Purtee almost one million dollars.
Many people believe Purtee’s lawsuit has everything to do with the Houston City Council’s decision to ban all attention-getting devices. One of them is David Key, who took over Houston Balloons & Promotions after Purtee. Said Key, “To make freedom of speech and then dictate what kind of advertising you can have, it’s very un-American.”
Key has formed a business coalition to fight the ordinance, and sent a letter on behalf of the coalition to Houston’s new mayor, Annise Parker, asking for the ordinance to be repealed. He has not yet received a response.