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Shrek and the City

May 18, 2007 |  4:50 pm

Shrek0003_4 It's opening night for the latest Shrek epic, and the advertising and promotions team includes the government of the City of Los Angeles.

L.A. is hanging banners that promote the movie from streetlight poles that usually are allowed to carry only banners for neighborhood councils, official city programs or events put on by nonprofits, like the Museum of Natural History or the Music Center. The Shrek banners were allowed because, officially at least, they were deemed to be promotions for the city's Million Trees campaign. And sure enough, there on the banners below "DreamWorks," "Shrek the Third," "GO GREEN!" and the giant image of the Shrek character, way down at the bottom, there is the city seal and a message to log onto www.milliontreesla.org.

Restrictions on use of city streetlight poles for advertising have been around for a long time but crystallized in the 1990s after city officials, and an executive with CBS, saw long boulevards lined with yellow banners on city streetlights promoting ABC's fall TV season. Lax oversight at City Hall had inadvertently put L.A. into the advertising business, and at rates that were an almost literal steal compared with what real advertisers would charge. That's because streetlight poles were never seen as a revenue producer. The city imposed nominal fees meant to cover the wear and tear on the poles caused by the additional wind stress from the banners flapping in the breeze.

The CBS exec complained and the City Council put attorneys and analysts on the case. They came up with an ordinance and regulations that solidified the policy of keeping streetlights off limits to purely commercial ventures. Now each banner is scrutinized by a city lawyer for compliance with law and policy.

But there are creative ways to finesse the law. For example, the historic San Antonio Winery sponsors banners promoting the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council. Included is the winery's logo, which is allowed as long as it takes up less than 20% of the banner area. Most of the banner is taken up by an ethereal but striking painting by acclaimed artist Irene Carranza. So far, no problem. Then the winery reproduced the same painting, with its logo, on giant billboards on Spring, Broadway and other streets north of downtown, turning the banners into an integral part of a brilliant—but legal envelope-pushing—advertising campaign.

The city continues to grapple with its uncertain role as a advertiser. Should it allow ads on DASH buses, as the MTA does? How about on residential trash cans? On City Hall? Where's the line between raising as much cash as possible—to pay for city services and put less tax pressure on residents—and presenting a decent cityscape not overly junked up by even more advertising?

The Shrek banners, by the way, were approved by the City Council in April as an important part of the tree campaign, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's project to green the city and improve the environment by planting trees. To me, they mostly shout out SEE SHREK THE THIRD! and only quietly whisper, after you've been staring awhile, anything about trees.

I should probably point out that the Shrek advertising campaign is carried out around the city on, among other things, MTA buses. And Los Angeles Times news boxes.

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