Cantilevered on a 1 1/2 foot wide ledge, 35 feet in the air over a shifting street with cars stacked in traffic, Greg Thompson maneuvers with confidence and ease.
For the last 25 years, Thompson has worked for one of the major advertising companies, putting up and taking down billboards around the greater Los Angeles area.
“I was very scared the first time I got up there,” Thompson said. “It took a good two weeks to get used to the actual height.”
For most of the last decade, the billboard business has been entangled in controversy – businesses have claimed freedom of speech while many residents and politicians have complained about blight.
Whatever the case, Thompson has become part of a very small group of billboard installers.
Thompson, who works on both standard and electronic billboards, said he is only one of about 17 employed by his company who do this work. Since 1985, Thompson has seen many transformations in the billboard process. He said the 18,000 billboards that were present when he started in the business have now decreased to around 6,200 billboards, 92 of which are digital.
Whatever the complaints may be, Thompson said that billboards are part of the LA landscape.
“The city would look a lot duller without the advertisements and wall murals. We would lose a lot of really great art without billboards,” he said.
Even with fewer billboards, the business keeps evolving.
One major change is when companies switched from paper to vinyl copies to prevent fading from sun exposure and deterioration from rain and wind. In addition, when taken down, the vinyl copy can be recycled into railroad ties.
Back when the copies were made of paper, Thompson had to glue sections of the copy onto the board like puzzle pieces. Now he just installs a single one pound vinyl sheet.
To put up billboards, Thompson said he takes many safety measures. A 3/4’’ cable connects him to the deck of the billboard, and a ladder on the side of the board acts as fall protection.
Thompson first dismantles the old copy and then attaches the 10’ x 40’ vinyl copy to the board using metal clamps. On an average day, Thompson changes twelve billboards, each taking about 15 minutes.
Though the billboard business may be getting smaller over the years, he said the recent economic dip has actually made him busier.
When the economy gets worse, advertisers want to encourage consumer activity. Thompson saw what he and his coworkers called the “burger wars.” He found himself constantly changing billboards for different fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s who continued to lower their prices, competing with each other to have the best value burger.
In the future, Thompson predicts that standard billboards will become obsolete and be replaced by electronic billboards.
The circuit court is considering an appeal on the moratorium, allowing some exceptions to the ban and cutting deals with different companies at its discretion.
A more profitable way of advertising, the digital boards can display 15 to 20 different five second long ads on one screen.
However, the cost of the electronic billboards as well as the large amount of light pollution they produce has created controversy and prevented the widespread distribution of these boards.
Article by Ileana and Colleen