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Sign Spinners: Marketing Help or Community Hurt?


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This segment originally aired November 14, 2006.


Developers are enlisting sign spinners to jump start a sluggish condo market and entice potential buyers. Builders say it works, but some cities say the animated signs point to nothing but trouble. Full Focus student correspondent Madelyn Warner has more.

Sixteen year-old Matthew Doolan turns on his iPod, tunes out the traffic and twirls his vinyl-padded sign, showing off his moves for hours at a time here in San Diego on the corner of Florida and University to advertise new condos down the road. He is a sign spinner, one of San Diego County's growing band of street-side workers employed to grab the attention of the public, and, in this case, sell units.

Matthew Doolan: What we do is we actually go out there and get people's attention by a point, a smile, or a wave, doing anything to be enthusiastic or goofy.

Doolan works five to seven hours per shift and attends intense training sessions. He receives a 10 cent raise for every new trick he learns.

Matthew Doolan: That's a 10 cent raise, that's a 10 cent raise, and that's a 10 cent raise. 

Doolan says he likes the money, the workout, the attention; and he's confident his work is selling condos.

Matthew Doolan: I know I am! Almost every weekend I hear, 'Oh, you sold a condo, people came in saying that they saw you spinning great, you're doing a good job!'

Businesses use sign spinners to help market everything from cars to salon supplies to sandwiches, but here in San Diego, all signs point to condos.

Matthew Doolan: We do it for a lot of condos, mainly that's what needs a lot of advertising. Most condos places may have a little sign, maybe some balloons.

But not all have sign spinners like Matthew Doolan. In some parts of the county, condo sales and other businesses are restricted from using the human directionals. The City of El Cajon, for example, has not permitted these attention-getting antics on its streets since 1970.

James Griffin, Community Planning Director for the City of El Cajon: It was beginning to look like Las Vegas in some people's minds because each business was trying to out-do the next one.

Jim Griffin says the original decision to ban sign spinning was part of a collaborative effort between the city and businesses to control the overuse of animated and temporary signs on local streets.

Jim Griffin: Somebody would put up a sign and then somebody else would block that sign and so they were just getting bigger and bigger, more aggressive going out into the street, blocking the sidewalk, doing all kinds of things.

So the El Cajon City Council worked with the Planning Commission, Chamber of Commerce, and others to develop a sign ordinance.  Approved in 1970, the ordinance stipulates acceptable types and sizes of signs, times and locations signage may be used, and bans some types of signs completely.

Jim Griffin: And one of those signs is the spinner type sign. They're not allowed because they are an animated sign. They're not allowed because they are frequently in the public right-of-way rather than on private property. The city doesn't permit signs in the public right of way, and then they're not allowed because they are off-premise typically.

But the city has become a hub for condominium conversions. As the number of newly available condo conversion units increased, developers employed sign spinners as a marketing tool, in violation of the city ordinance.

Jim Griffin: Each of them I think thought that they were going to be the only one's doing this. But the problem is that there are probably 40 or 50 condominium complexes for sale at any one time, so you would have multiple spinners at freeway off ramps at strategic corners, so it just became a mess.

Following a sizeable number of offenses, representatives from local condominium conversion projects approached the city, asking for an exception to the ordinance. They wanted to use spinner advertisements for a six month sales period. Chris Christensen, president and founder of advocated the change to the ordinance, and is an active proponent for the use of sign spinners in El Cajon, and throughout San Diego County.

Chris Christensen: And it creates a sense of excitement for people to know that hey, there's something going on just around the corner, just down the street. So the sign spinners are crucial to bring traffic into the individual project so that buyers can look at what's available for sale.

Christensen says sign spinners help direct people into areas they might not otherwise explore. As a seller of condo conversion properties, he worries potential buyers could miss out on projects like this one off Washington Sreet in El Cajon, if they don't have that directional sign to literally point them in the right direction.

Chris Christensen: There have been statistics done by companies that do research on the sales and marketing of condominium conversions projects and one of the primary sources that they point to that drives the traffic in are the sign spinners. They ask the buyers, how'd you hear about us? And the majority of the people that come here are directed to the projects by the sign spinners.

The City of El Cajon disagrees.

Jim Griffin: The use of a sign spinner isn't going to stop somebody driving down the street to suddenly pull over and say 'I'm going to buy a condo'.

The El Cajon City Attorney advised the council that they couldn't make an exception.

If the council wanted to change the ordinance, they would have to make a formal amendment.   

Jim Griffin: The council voted four to one making any changes to the ordinance.

Griffin says any amendment to the ordinance would have had to be consistent and equitable.

Jim Griffin: We can't really say it's ok if it's a condo conversion project, but it's not ok for Jack in the Box or Joe's Cell Phone Service.

Although the city did not approve changes to the sign ordinance, Griffin says condos are still selling. He suggests that any slump in sales could be due to high asking prices.

Jim Griffin: You're fixing your prices at the wrong level, maybe that's why they're not selling. I mean, putting 100 spinners in front of your project isn't going to sell any condos if the price is still too high.

But despite San Diego's pricey housing market, sign spinner Matthew Doolan say's he's helped many buyers find their way to new homes.

Matthew Doolan: As people go by, a lot of people are like, ‘where are the condos?’ so you tell them where the condos are and then they go, 'hey you're sign spinner told me the condos are down here.' So obviously it does a lot of advertising!

Chris Christensen: Anything that we can do to help create demand for that project or create excitement about a particular project is going to help everybody.  So sign spinners, as long as everything is balanced and remains in control and people are accountable, then sign spinners can do nothing but good for the local housing industry.

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