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Public-Service Signs Send a Clear Political Message

THE billboard that usually advertises cigarettes above the Necco candy factory in Cambridge, Mass., is bare. Many other billboards in Cambridge, though not bare, no longer carry advertising messages. Instead, they bear public-service messages: fighting drug abuse, crime, disease, and children in poverty.

Could there be a correlation between such use of billboards and the fact that city officials are due to vote on restricting billboards soon?

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Absolutely, says Robert Bonnie of Scenic America, a lobbying group in Washington dedicated to limiting billboards.

"This is not goodwill on the [part of the] billboard industry. It's a systematic tactic to undermine local and national billboard control efforts," says Mr. Bonnie.

Usually only a handful of people - the mayor and city-council members - vote on local ordinances to limit billboards. Scenic America says the billboard industry often tries to curry favor with these individuals:

* In Orlando, Fla., the mayor quietly requested a billboard count. Only three of 489 sign faces had public-service messages. Three months after the mayor announced public hearings on regulating billboards, his crew, in another survey, found 20 to 25 percent donated to public service.

*-In Des Moines, Iowa, the billboard industry took the local regulations to court. During the trial, a public-service billboard went up: "A Shriner never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a crippled child." The judge on the case was a Shriner.

*-In Spokane, Wash., just weeks before the city council prepared to vote on billboard regulations, Donrey Outdoor Advertising reportedly handed out checks of $5,500 to each member's favorite charity.

What does the billboard industry say?

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"Ridiculous - in Cambridge, we've been trying to educate the members of the council with regard to the value of our medium ... as an advertising tool and outlet for nonprofit groups," says Elizabeth Palumbo, director of public affairs for Ackerley Communications Inc. (Based in Seattle, Ackerley owns signs in Boston, Seattle, and Portland, Ore., and some 64 radio and TV stations.)

Ms. Palumbo says the 40 signs her company owns in Cambridge are "an important part of our media mix." Roughly 15 percent of all their billboards carry public-service messages, she says; corporations often pay for the space, and get their name displayed.

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