Tacoma’s City Council approved a law last year outlawing most billboards within the city limits, but that hasn’t stopped Tacoma Public Utilities from advertising on the restricted signs while Tacoma takes a timeout from enforcing its ordinance.
Tacoma Power’s Click Network is now in the midst of a one-year, $90,415 contract with Clear Channel Outdoor for “outdoor poster advertising” to market the city-owned cable television network’s brand on at least 13 billboards through year’s end. Click also is paying the company $15,000 for production costs.
Click’s branding campaign has utilized some of the same billboards deemed “non-conforming” under the city’s new billboards law.
In an email last week, TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason said that because Click can’t effectively reach its target market through radio or broadcast television, the network has “resorted to using billboards as an effective means to generate brand recognition.”
But the campaign has rankled several council members, some of whom say they were surprised to learn about Click’s contract with Clear Channel only this month.
“It’s disappointing,” said Councilman Ryan Mello. “I see it as ratepayers’ dollars going into the coffers of a corporation that will continue to bring blight to Tacoma and keep this city tied up in court.”
Click is “essentially helping Clear Channel fund a legal action against the City of Tacoma,” Mello added. “That seems highly ironic to me.”
Click General Manager Tenzin Gyaltsen signed the agreement with Clear Channel in mid-December – about four months after the council approved an updated city sign ordinance that banned digital billboards and drastically restricted traditional ones in Tacoma.
Amid overwhelming anti-billboard sentiment from the public, the council adopted a law that backtracked from an announced city settlement with the advertising giant in 2010. That settlement agreement would have allowed Clear Channel to put up some digital billboards in Tacoma, in exchange for removing its existing traditional signs and dropping a federal lawsuit against an earlier city sign ordinance.
Click’s contract – effective Jan. 16 through Dec. 31 – became effective nearly two months before the city law’s March 1 deadline requiring Clear Channel to remove about 190 billboards deemed non-conforming.
But the city’s deadline came and went, and Clear Channel’s billboards stayed. In March, incoming City Manager T.C. Broadnax, faced with a budget crisis, informed council members the city planned to suspend enforcement of the new code through the end of 2012.
Broadnax took that action so the city could avoid incurring potential legal costs to defend against court actions taken by Clear Channel over the ordinance, city officials have said.
City legal staff discussions about delaying enforcement of the ordinance because of cost considerations have been continuing, and some undoubtedly preceded Broadnax’s tenure, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said last week. Pauli also confirmed her department reviewed and approved Click’s contract with Clear Channel.
But that doesn’t mean her office knew as early as December or January that the city’s billboards ordinance wasn’t going to be enforced this year, she added.
“The contract review wouldn’t necessarily consider those kinds of things,” Pauli said. “In general, it’s a form review.”
Gleason said: “It was Click’s understanding when the contract was signed, however, that Clear Channel and the city were close to an agreement.”
Click’s contract with Clear Channel provides a full year of advertising on 13 billboards within Click’s service area, with the ads to be changed every four weeks.
“The Click marketing team chooses the location and switches out the posters on a monthly basis,” Gleason said.
She added Click’s billboard advertising “works,” but noted only two of Clear Channel’s billboards in Tacoma are now considered conforming under the city’s new ordinance.
“If Click is directed to vacate the billboards located within Tacoma, we will do that,” Gleason said. “Click has discussed this issue with Clear Channel and they are amenable to switching us to an alternative posting plan. They may have other options, such as a wrap on the trains and selecting billboard locations outside of Tacoma city limits.”
In Mello’s view, Click should have explored alternative advertising in the first place.
Direct online marketing to likely consumers and door-to-door sales pitches are proven techniques to increase brand awareness, he said.
“That’s what Comcast does,” Mello said. “There are many cheaper and more strategic ways to advertise.”
Click officials couldn’t have been blind to the public fervor surrounding the billboards issue, Mello said.
“People packed the planning commission (meetings) and City Council chambers for months about this issue,” he said. “(Click) obviously knew how important this was to the city.”
Gleason said Click’s advertising opportunities are fairly limited because of the need to focus in the Tacoma area.
“It does not make financial sense to pay for Seattle-market radio and broadcast television, and Click cannot purchase targeted broadcast time from other cable television and satellite providers,” she said.
Councilman Marty Campbell, who described himself as “surprised and frustrated” when learning of Click’s contract, said the city probably didn’t do a good job of articulating the council’s expectations to all departments.
“I don’t think we ever said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Campbell said of billboard advertising. “But this brings the issue to light. I’m sure we’ll all be having the conversation now of what we expect this means for city departments. We all need to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Gleason noted Click has helped keep cable TV rates low in the Tacoma market and its success benefits the entire region. “We hope for resolution with the ordinance issue soon,” her email said.