Spinning for attention
Are street-corner sign wavers an effective advertising method or over-saturated fad?
On the corner of El Camino Real and Glenwood Avenue in Menlo Park — surrounded by traffic, pedestrians, gas pumps and street lights — stands a 5-foot-tall yellow duck. When the temperature is cool, the duck dances and waves while holding a large banner advertising $6.99 car washes at Ducky's Car Wash half a block down the road.
What compels this waterfowl to shamelessly plug sudsy, vehicular cleanses?
"When we have the duck out there, people come in and want to know about our car washes," Ducky's manager Karen Nickolai said.
According to Nickolai, the duck has brought in hundreds of customers. Random residents will stop Nickolai on Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park to ask: "Where's your duck?"
Sign-spinning advertisements, also known as "human directionals," are frequent sights on street corners throughout the Midpeninsula. Once relegated to unsold condos and new home developments, sign spinners now point to a variety of business activities, such as oil changes, mattress sales or restaurant openings.
Jiffy Lube on El Camino Real in Palo Alto has had its employees wave signs at passing drivers in the mornings to bring in business.
Mancini's Sleepworld in Mountain View hires outside help, usually friends or family members of employees, for $16 an hour to dress up in a mattress and advertise major holiday sales. Jake Hand, manager of Mancini's, said the sign wavers help bring in customers.
But an increase in sign spinners may not be good for business, he said.
Hand once saw four sign wavers within one city block.
"I think it was more effective when less people were doing it," he said. "When people are doing it more often, it becomes less special."
Sign spinning has become so popular that advertising companies, such as AArrow in San Diego, have formed specifically to offer highly trained spinners. Their employees are like break dancers, capable of doing backflips while tossing their signs into the air. Some of their employees have been featured in commercials for McDonald's and Ford.
Skill comes with a price, however: AArrow sign spinners charge $25 to $50 an hour.
Other advertising companies that don't offer such highly skilled spinners, such as Allure Advertising and Media Nation, pay $8 to $15 an hour for human directionals, according to each company's website.
Some businesses consider the cost relatively cheap — and highly targeted — in comparison to other forms of advertising.
According to gaebler.com, a website providing resources to entrepreneurs, a billboard ad costs $700 to $2,500 a month and a full-page ad in a major newspaper costs 10 times that amount for one day. If a business were to hire a sign spinner for four hours a day during rush hour and for five days a week, the cost would be between $640 and $1,200 a month.
At places like Ducky's, where current employees take shifts holding signs on street corners, additional costs are nothing.
"It is free marketing. Billboards can be very expensive, while the duck is on our payroll," Nickolai said.
Some customers voice their concerns about the health of the people inside the duck costume, Nickolai said. But workers rotate wearing the costume and are not out on the street corner for more than an hour at a time.
"All of the employees want to be the duck," she said. At Ducky's, workers are paid only when they are doing actual work, such as washing, cleaning cars and being the duck.
Beni Guillen, an employee at Ducky's, said he enjoys wearing the costume and feels it's effective. He listens to Reggaeton while waving his arms. With music he can dance to, he does not get bored.
"I try to entertain the little kids because they seem to like the duck costume the most," Guillen said.
Though city ordinances regulate free-standing signs, Palo Alto City Attorney Donald Larkin said ordinances do not apply to sign spinners. Placing private signs on public property is illegal, but human-held signs are allowed as long as they don't interfere with pedestrian traffic.
Robert Goldman, professor of sociology at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., and author of "Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising," isn't sold on human directionals yet.
"They might have been successful initially, but I haven't seen any data on this," he said. "If an advertisement is supposed to be seductive and luxurious, then these don't achieve that. They draw people in only if they were already thinking about it."
Goldman said that more and more businesses are doing it because "labor is so cheap and abundant right now."
One of those laborers is Elizabeth Foster of East Palo Alto, who took a job holding an 8-foot-tall red sign for Woodland Apartments because it was all she could find.
She works 40 hours a week on the corner of University Avenue and Donohue Street in East Palo Alto in four-hour blocks, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.
"I never thought I would be doing this," she said.
Before holding signs, Foster was in the U.S. Navy and worked at Macy's. She graduated from beauty school and is waiting to get her license.
During her shifts she places her hand inside a small, round hole in the sign that gives her leverage to tilt it back and forth. She said she enjoys the work.
"It's great. I don't have to worry about co-worker drama," she said.
The only co-worker she sees is her manager, who comes out during each shift to take a picture of Foster standing on the corner, proving to Woodland that she is in fact working.
Foster has a young son to care for and said that she is looking for a more typical office job that would provide a more normal schedule.
"Until then, I will work here as long as I can."
Editorial Iintern Ryan Deto can be e-mailed at email@example.com.