Sign of the times: Desperate times call for human advertising

BRADENTON — Wearing a pair of stereo headphones and using his sign to shade himself, Michael Kahn was part way through his shift advertising Circuit City’s going-out-of-business sale.

Becoming a human billboard definitely wasn’t a life’s dream for Kahn, an auto business mechanic who was laid off in the slowing economy.

For his seven-hour shift holding a roughly 8-foot-tall sign, Kahn gets $45.

“It’s a no-brainer job. It’s easy,” the 33-year-old Bradenton resident said Thursday, as traffic whizzed past on U.S. 41 in front of the store. “A person in my situation, I need to do anything I can do to make money.”

Reminiscent of the sandwich-board signs that merchants and job-seekers wore during the Great Depression, human billboards — or directionals as they are sometimes called — are popping up more frequently along local thoroughfares.

Aside from the products or services they promote, the signs also signal desperate times in a slowing economy.

“Yesterday my (sign) guys were off, and we dropped by probably 20 percent,” said Lee Pattison, husband of the franchise owner at the Quizno’s in the 5900 block of Manatee Avenue West.

Pattison has been using two sign holders to advertise the $1 flatbread Sammies special the location is running.

“It will double your door count, provided you’re putting a deal out there,” he said. “Don’t try it if you’re looking to promote a high-end deal.”

Pattison said he has been using human billboards for a couple of years, but has “without a doubt” increased their usage during the current economic crisis.

The sign-holders get paid minimum wage and are usually happy for the employment, though it may not be the first job a person would typically choose, Pattison said.

“People take whatever work’s out there right now if they’re smart,” he said. “If they don’t, they don’t eat.”

With all the signs popping up on the streets, one might think business was booming for Barbie Natale, owner of The Entertainment Factory in Valrico. The company provides entertainment for parties and special events, but also specializes in human directional signs held by animated, often costumed people.

While the real estate market was booming, so was business. But now, many of the residential developments that used to hire her human directionals have resorted to making their own signs and hiring people at minimum wage to hold them.

“With the job market being flooded, they can get someone good,” Natale said. “It’s not a job people really want, but if people need a job, it’s something they will do.”

Jim Curran, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida Sarasota/Manatee, said the human billboard approach probably makes sense in the current economy, when business owners are strapped for cash and may not be able to afford conventional advertising.

“TV, radio, that sort of thing, it’s obviously going to be cheaper than that,” Curran said. “And if people are seeing these things, they might be persuaded, spur of the moment, to take that turn and visit. There’s no doubt these guys are visible.

“Some of these guys that are doing this, if we were in the middle of the construction boom, I think they’d be doing something that was a little bit better for their wallets,” he added. “And these businesses are working with a very minimal amount of cash right now.”

For Kahn, advertising the Circuit City liquidation was the only work he could find.

“I’ve looked and looked,” Kahn said. “I’ve been to Jobs Etc. There’s nothing out there.”

To make matters worse, Kahn said he’s been told he’ll only be needed for four more days because the store is preparing to close.

“Once the business is closed, it’s done,” Kahn said. “That means you’re done, too.”

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