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November 13, 2006

Hivemind: How does the sidewalk shed advertising business work?

Many New Yorkers don't realize that it's illegal to display ads on scaffolds, construction walls, and sidewalk hutches (except for businesses behind the scaffold).

Widespread ignorance of the law is understandable. Until recently enforcement has been a joke. High-profile corporations have been placing ads on these surfaces for years with impunity, including Citibank and Apple.

Many New Yorkers suspect that at least part of the reason why you can't walk two blocks in Manhattan without seeing a scaffold is because sidewalk hutches and construction walls have become lucrative advertising venues in spite of the law.

Shed permits are good for one year. Many residents and retail tenants speculate that landlords are keeping these hutches up for the sake of advertising revenue. I've even heard rumors that some construction companies are colluding with landlords to extend construction timetables for the sake of ad money.

My question for the hivemind is how these deals actually go down. Major advertising agencies (and marketing firms) have been colluding with building owners and/or construction companies for years in multi-million dollar black market outdoor ad industry. I've heard rumors that the mafia is involved somehow, but I haven't been able to find any corroborating evidence so far.

Of course, the situation is complicated by an apparently separate phenomenon known as "sniping"--illegal postering. Those "post no bills" signs on construction walls and sheds are required by law. Yet in New York there are obviously many concerted professionalized faux-guerilla campaigns to paper every construction site with movie posters and iPod ads.

The industry term for these campaigns is "wildposting." Boutique ad agencies and marketing firms openly contract with corporate clients to illegally put up posters in dozens, if not hundreds of high-traffic locations, typically construction sites, or walls. The ad agencies don't specifically say that what they're doing is illegal, but at leas in New York City, it is.

If anyone has any insight into either shed advertising or systematic corporate sniping, please let me know.


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I can't speak for New York, but flyposting's a major overground 'underground' ndustry in London with small armies of cash-in-hand, deniable employees flyposting anywwhere possible despite strict bylaws. Obviously it's part of a 'hip, edgy, urban' strategy that music and fashion companies've got going with their ad agency and PR people. Plus it's cheap.

Camden seems to be the only borough who's even tried getting a grip. From The Register 2 years ago:

Camden Council has taken out Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbo) against a number of people at Sony and BMG in an attempt to stop music companies illegally flyposting in the London borough. The named individuals, presumably marketing bods, are deemed responsible for organising the flyposting.

Camden council estimates that Sony and BMG save more than £8m a year by putting up illegal posters instead of buying legitimate advertising space. The council spends £250,000 a year clearing up the mess.

With the Asbos in place, the named individuals face up to five years behind bars if they don't start toeing the line. Illegal posters get stuck on everything from lamposts to shop hoardings and local residents and businesses have made over one thousand complaints to the council.

That's just in one London borough. Money that big is not to be sniffed at, and there has to be some tax evasion going on too. Perhaps it might give some idea of how profitable an industry this might be in NY too.

Thanks, RP. That fits right in with the pattern I'm seeing in NYC.

At least here in Los Angeles, I've never heard of a landlord actually renting the space out - with so much free space available, why would the marketing firms even bother? Most landlords and construction firms just can't be bothered to paint over the posters.

You just get together some casual labor, give them posters and glue, and send them out to do their work. It's deniable since you (as the marketer) never specifically told them to do anything illegal. Here's an ad calling for labor, for example:

It's been going on for quite some time - as I recall there's even a scene in a Charles Dickens novel, I forget which one, where some of the characters are hired to illegally post advertising.

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