Villanova Professor’s Study Examines Value of Illuminated On-premise Signs

Professor Charles R. Taylor,  a marketing professor at Villanova University, and a Research Fellow at the Center for Marketing and Policy Research, conducted a survey of business owners as to the value of illumination for their on-premise signs. Surveys were sent to 750 business owners, and 333 useable responses were received. Here are some of the highlights:

The average business had 1.7 signs, which were lit for 13.9 hours daily. The average business was open for 10.8 hours per day, which indicates the need for identification even when the business isn’t open. More than 80% reported doing so, and 30% said their signs were illuminated 24/7.

Approximately one fourth of the respondents faced restrictions on their illuminated, on-premise signs. Most common was restrictions on the type of illuminated sign (24%); others were brightness (8%) and allowable hours of operation (3%).

On a scale of 1-7 (the higher the number, the more the respondent agrees with the statement), these business owners were asked to assess the following statements about an illuminated signs’ function:

  • Reinforces advertising as part of integrated marketing communications (6.14)
  • Brands the business’s location (6.14)
  • Enhances the store’s image (6.22)
  • Helps communicate the business’ location (6.19)
  • Brands the business even when it’s closed (6.22)

Respondents said restrictions on lighting on-premise signs inhibit their ability to effectively perform marketing functions. A majority said they would lose sales if government regulations prevented them from lighting their signs. They estimated this would cause a 21% loss in sales.

The full 31-page report can be found on The Signage Foundation website at

What the Three Street Graphics Books Say About Signs

In 1971, the American Planning Association (APA) began distributing a book called Street Graphics and the Law, which was authored by Daniel Mandelker and William Ewald. It recommended the uncompensated taking of signs and governmental control of signs’ design, message and content.

The authors stated that their conclusions were substantially based on 1956 research conducted by Rockefeller University professor George Miller with regard to the human brain’s ability to process multiple bits of information. Yet, when Miller read the authors’ assessment of his research, he observed “The situation would be amusing if misrepresentations of my work were not being taken as the basis for enacting ordinances to control street graphics . . . I must strongly protest the distortion of my own work and must deplore the enactment of restrictions based on such an inadequate understanding of the psychological processes involved.” Miller’s 1000-word letter that denounces Street Graphics‘ interpretation of his work appeared in the April 1973 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

In the following decade, several Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decisions overruled some tenets of the book. Subsequently, in 1988, the same authors revised the book as Street Graphics. It retreated from many of its restraint of trade recommendations, yet the majority of it remained intact.

In 2005, the third version, entitled Street Graphics and the Law, was released, and a third author, from the sign industry, was listed on the cover as a principal author. He wrote one chapter that included some Penn State legibility tables. Most of the rest of the book remained intact, but, by implication, it appeared that the sign industry endorsed the entire book.

Thus, this third version was viewed as significantly flawed, but a slight improvement over the first two versions. The question still remains, how good must good enough be? Two separate discussions of the 2005 book appear in the January 2005 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

What are Some Guidelines for Electronic Message Center Resolution?

A critical aspect of any sign is viewing distance. The appropriate amount of detail varies greatly, depending on the distance from which the sign will be viewed. In digital printing, this “resolution” is determined by “dots per inch,” or DPI. The more closely an image will be viewed, the higher its resolution needs to be, which means the dots produced by the inkjet printer would need to be closer together, and there would be more of them within a defined space.

The same concept applies to electronic message centers. The individual LEDs function the same as the inkjet dots. The more detail you want, the more LEDs you would need with a defined space, and the decision would be based on the anticipated viewing distance. An electronic billboard 600 feet from the highway is different than an electronic message center built into the cabinet of a freestanding pole sign next to a two-lane road.

For electronic signs, this resolution is called “pixel pitch,” and it means the distance between the centers of individual LEDs, which are known as pixels. The distance also varies if the individual pixel is color (comprising different-color LEDs) or monochrome (one color). Here are some general guidelines for pixel pitch and viewing distance.

Pitch Range Viewing Distance
3-6mm up to 50 feet
6-12mm 50-100 feet
12-15mm 100-200 feet
15-20mm 200-400 feet
20-30mm 400-800 feet
30-40mm 800-1500 feet
More than 40mm More than 1500 feet

As for the size of letters and viewing distance, the standards for non-electric signs apply similarly — approximately 1 inch of letter height for every 50 feet of distance from which it would be viewed. This should be coupled with the speed of traffic. Allowing a viewing time of 20 seconds is ideal. Thus, if a car is traveling at 60 mph, the sign should be legible from a distance of 1734 feet. Generally, electric highway signs should be a minimum of 10 x 30 feet.

An article on this topic appeared in the May 2004 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

Can a Changeable-copy Sign Help a Business?

A car wash in California had a two-color, freestanding, rectangular ground sign. It replaced it with a sign of the same proportion, which constituted a multi-color, dimensional cabinet sign on a pole and a manual, changeable-copy sign below it. The sign cost $15,000.

In the first year after the new sign was installed, gross revenue for the car wash increased by $135,000 — 900% of the cost of the sign. A licensed appraiser said that the overall value of the sign was $340,000. The full story and detailed appraisal formulae were published in the September 1999 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

How Did One Car Dealer Succeed When Three Others had Failed at the Same Lot?

Melvin Tuchez worked as an employee in the auto-sales business, and then he purchased his own dealership, Aztec Motors, in San Fernando, California. He believed three other auto-sales companies on the same site had failed due to inferior branding and weak management. He immediately began spending $16,000 per month on print and on-air advertising.

A sign company called upon Tuchez, and he purchased two on-premise, electronic pole signs. He reported an immediate increase of 10 walk-in customers per week, which resulted in six additional sales, and paid for the signs in less than a month. He subsequently reduced his advertising budget to $4,000 per month. Additionally, he began using the logo from his signs on sales and promotional materials.

The two signs cost $15,000. With the additional sales, and the reduction in other advertising costs, an appraiser calculated his savings over a three-year period at $400,000. Tuchez subsequently opened three additional Aztec Motors locations.

What Difference Does an Angled Sign Make Versus a Sign that’s Parallel to the Road?

Elsewhere in this series of questions, the difference in conspicuity for parallel and perpendicular signs is calculated, along with the requisite minimum sizes for the letters of each. But what if the local sign code won’t allow a bigger sign, and not enough projection length for a legible perpendicular sign? Would a sign with at least some angle make a difference?

Frenchy’s Bistro was located on Anaheim St., a busy thoroughfare in Long Beach, California. As one of four tenants in a commercial building, it had two signs: a non-illuminated wall sign and a tri-color canopy that projected the maximum 30 inches.

As an alternative, Frenchy’s purchased a “double-faced” electric, cabinet sign, but the sign faces weren’t back to back, but angled out from the wall in a V-shape toward each other.

Before the new sign(s) was(were) installed, Frenchy’s had $279,000 in pre-tax income annually. After the sign was installed, sales increased 16% immediately. Over the next year, they increased an additional 32%. The owners surveyed their guests and determined the sign was directly responsible for 10% of all sales. The net income directly attributable to the sign for a year was $16,182. The following year, it increased to $21,360. This also meant an additional $8,865 in state and federal income tax.

Other calculations for the $5,700 sign included that its cost per thousand exposures (CPM, the standard way to compare different forms of advertising) was 15 cents. The cost per month for the sign was $121.11. At the time (2000), other CPMs were as follows:

  • A 30-second, prime-time TV ad: $18
  • A half-page, black-and-white newspaper ad: $10.80
  • A full-page, four-color magazine ad: $8.70
  • A one-minute, drive-time radio ad: $5.30
  • A 30-day, 30-sheet poster panel: $1.60

The full story appears in the September 2000 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

What Happened in the Denny’s v. Agoura Hills Pole-sign Case?

In 1985, the city of Agoura Hills, California enacted a sign ordinance that prohibited all pole signs, with the exception of a few that were less than 6 feet tall. It included an amortization period that ended in March 1992, at which time all of the pole signs would have to come down, without any cash compensation.

Agoura Hills is bisected by US Highway 101, which runs significantly high above the city. Thus, the only way highway motorists could know that gas stations and restaurants were located below was due to the high-rise pole signs.

Burger King, for example, conducted a traffic-flow study and discovered that 88% of the motorists who passed its restaurant did so on the highway. Only 12% passed it on the road below. The Burger King was specifically built to serve highway customers. Burger King determined that 60% of its sales were directly attributable to its sign. It calculated that the loss of the pole sign would constitute a $2 million loss in profit over a 15-year period.

As for other end users, the court found that the removal of pole signs would cause 35% loss of gross revenue for both Texaco and McDonald’s. This would mean $336,000 less revenue for Texaco in the first year the pole sign was removed, and $1.1 million loss for McDonald’s in its first year.

In 1983, California attorney Bob Aran authored a statute called Section 5499, which stated, “No city or county shall require the removal of any on-premise advertising display on the basis of its height or size by requiring conformance with any ordinance or regulation introduced or adopted on or after March 12, 1983, if special topographic circumstances would result in a material impairment of visibility of the display or the owner’s or user’s ability to adequately and effectively continue to communicate with the public.”

Although the city contended that it banned all pole signs, the court found that the ordinance “plainly discriminated between tall signs and short signs.” The court also ruled that “special topographic circumstances” referred not only to natural surface contours, but also to “all non-temporary surface conditions of whatever origin.” As for visual impairment, the court said more than natural impairments (hills, trees) had to be considered, such as buildings, utility poles, etc.

The court concluded, “The evidence clearly establishes that these special topographic circumstances would materially impair the visibility of conforming signs for each plaintiff. The plaintiffs are entitled to prevail, first of all, based on the material impairment of raw visibility.” Furthermore, if the ban were enforced, the court said conforming signs would not be visible at all from the area’s freeway, and that conforming signs would not be visible to freeway motorists in time to safely exit at the off ramp.

What has Senator Orrin Hatch Said about Signage?

In 1998, the former Signage Foundation for Communication Excellence presented its National Sign Users’ Conference on Sign Regulation and Marketing, in conjunction with the International Sign Association and its Sign Expo ’98 tradeshow. The keynote speaker at the conference was Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). The following are some highlights from his address.

“My topic today is the state of the law, particularly Constitutional law, as it applies to commercial communication. The term. of course, includes signs, billboards and the like, legitimate forms of communication. I believe government regulation has become burdensome, often times unconstitutional.

Advertising has been part of our culture since colonial times. Defense of political and commercial speech was recognized by the common law. It has been recognized since day one in this country. In America, the printed word was given greater protection than it was in mother England. Indeed, respect for the printed word was so great that printers were often considered heroes of the Revolutionary War and the new Republic. Witness Ben Franklin, for example.

At the time, legislatures could only prohibit advertising that was fraudulent or misleading. It was not until 1975, in the Bigelow v. Virginia case, and in 1976, in Virginia Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Consumer Council Inc., that the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected truthful and non-misleading commercial messages. The public has an interest in receiving accurate commercial information, and the government has little or no correlative interest in censoring the content of the message.

The Supreme Court recognized a state may regulate commercial advertising more freely than political speech. It may also impose a content-neutral set of restrictions on the time, place or manner of speech. But it may not completely ban the speech.

The content-neutral restrictions often are used merely as an excuse. Other sign codes delegate almost unfettered discretion to bureaucrats. In challenging these restrictions, apply the commercial-speech test of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission in 1980. Here, the government bears the burden of justifying a restriction on commercial speech. The four-part test requires:

  • Is the speech a lawful activity and not misleading?
  • Is the asserted governmental interest substantial?
  • Does the restriction directly advance that interest?
  • Is the restriction narrowly tailored to advance that interest?

In Forty-Four Liquor Mart Inc. v. Rhode Island, in 1996, the Supreme Court increased the protection by subjecting the restrictions to a more strict review. It struck down a prohibition on advertising the price of alcoholic beverages.

Besides First Amendment implications, regulation of sign advertisements raises Fifth Amendment property-rights concerns. Our founders knew from the beginning of the creation of the Republic the importance of property rights. It’s one reason why we have our tremendous wealth and free-market system. Our founders feared that the government they helped form might use its power to abuse the people it was designed to protect.

John Adams, the second president said, “The moment the idea is admitted into a society, that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and as there is not force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commenced.”

The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, in his celebrated essay on property, wrote that the very purpose of government is to protect private property. That’s why the last clause of the Fifth Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights. Known as the “Takings Clause,” it states, “Nor shall private property be taken for pubic use without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

With the growth of government at all levels — federal, state and local — private property has become increasingly under attack. Too often, localities abuse zoning powers by restricting sign advertising on so-called “aesthetic” grounds. Too often, localities misuse the nuisance doctrine to prohibit otherwise legal advertising.

in the 1992 Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council Supreme Court case, it struck down zoning regulations that would have forbid the building of a beachfront home. The court said the locality must factually demonstrate that the use of the private property is engendering some concrete danger. Mere aesthetics may not be enough.

What’s the Economic Difference Between a Perpendicular Doubled-faced and Single-faced Sign?

When a Pier 1 Imports store opened in Germantown, TN (a suburb of Memphis), in 1991, it was granted a permit for a sign that faced west-bound traffic. However, no signage was visible to west-bound traffic. A few months after the store’s opening, sales were 25% below projections, despite typical promotions, advertising and direct mailings.

Pier 1 subsequently surveyed 200 shoppers through a market-research firm about having a second sign. The responses were the following.

Are the signs helpful to you? 66% said “very helpful;” 31.5% said “somewhat helpful,” and 2.5% said “not at all helpful.”

Does the sign increase public safety? 93% said yes; 75 said no.

Does the sign affect aesthetics negatively? 91% said no; 5.5% said yes, and 2.5% had no opinion.

Is the sign more of a public benefit or a public nuisance? 90.5% said benefit; 5.5% said nuisance, and 4.5% had no opinion.

Expert appraisal determined that the gross annual income for the store would be $1.2 million with the second sign, and $1,020,000 without it. Store officials stated that overhead and the cost of merchandise being sold was $1,020,000 so, without the second sign, the store would generate no profit.

As for the community itself, Pier 1 estimated that, without the second sign, it would pay, city, county and state taxes of $76,080. With the second sign and increased sales, it would pay $104,229. Thus the tax-revenue difference for the town would be $28,000.  Presented with this evidence, Germantown officials readily granted a variance for the second sign. The full story about this variance appeared in the April 1992 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

What Does a Business Owner Think About the Bozeman, MI Sign Code?

Roger Koopman wrote an editorial for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle a quarter century ago. Does it sound like it could be written today? This appeared in the February 1991 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

One of the more interesting hypocrisies of contemporary liberalism is the ease with which its followers can advocate a soft-on-crime posture when traditional issues of justice are involved (violence, theft, etc.), while, at the same time, they can pass the severest of laws against peaceful citizens who never did violence to anyone. They spew forth every possible excuse on behalf of the thug, the murderer and the rapist, but if you are a small businessman who somehow thought you had the right to do with your own property as you saw fit, they’ll nail you to the wall for failing to get the requisite licenses and permissions from the Central Planning Bureau.

So it is with the bullies at City Hall who call themselves commissioners. By way of a “temporary zoning law,” they created a whole new class of “criminals” from among those who failed to realize that independent entrepreneurial thinking has no place in the Brave New Bozeman of 1990. The scapegoat is the business sign, but the issue is freedom.

Under the new sign law, designed to reduce something they call “visual clutter,” they have totally banned new billboards and portable signs, and have mandated the removal of portable signs within two years. Various other bans and restrictions have been decreed. Violators of the sign law (criminals all) will be fined up to $500 and jailed up to six months for every day of non-compliance. In other words, if a businessman was using an “illegal” sign for a month, these fair-minded, tender-hearted City Commissioners could fine him $15,000 and lock him up for 15 years.

Meanwhile, your tax dollars are being used to pay city employees to patrol our streets in search of these dastardly sign violators. And our commissioners are preparing to spend another $20,000 of our money to hire an out-of-state “expert” to design Bozeman’s “streetscapes” of the future.” (They spent $50,000 last year to have some Denver consultant “plan” our community for us.)

The question must be asked: Just who are our city commissioners representing — the people of Bozeman or a narrow political constituency that noisily espouses their radical agenda?

Because the commission has no intention of surveying our opinions on this or any other issue, I conducted my own survey, using a confidential questionnaire that was given to every client/customer who entered my business in May.

My business displays an 8-ft., four-color, lighted sign that conforms to city regulations. Part of my survey dealt with specific attitudes toward that sign, while the remainder addressed general sign regulation issues. Here are the results from my 189 responses:

  • 99.3% said my sign didn’t bother them at all.
  • 97.2% said the sign was useful in locating my business.
  • 81% thought the size of my sign was fine; 19% thought it should be made “larger and more visible,” and 0% thought it should be smaller.
  • 65.5% “seldom, if ever” think about the visual appearance of business signs.

When asked what they would do about a “highly offensive sign,” 78.6% said they would express their displeasure to the business owner or do business elsewhere. Only 29.8% thought government officials should handle the matter.

These results clearly state that people put their faith in individual responsibility and in the marketplace, but this is a concept our elitist city government can’t even begin to understand.  And so they legislate to the approximately 10% who are bothered by the signs and want to see the government do something. In so doing, they ignore the 90% who just want to be left alone.

All the criticisms I received from my last editorial came from educators. Many of the “sign whiners” have little appreciation of what it takes for a town like Bozeman to build a business, meet a payroll and otherwise scratch out a meager and insecure living.

A free society is not a perfect society, but it is the freedom to choose, and to accept responsibility for our choices, that brings out the best in all of us. It creates a society that is dynamic, ever-changing and rich with diversity. Beware of those who would shatter our community by seeking to politically impose not diversity, but uniformity, not growth, but control, not change but resistance to all things different and new.

A look at the 2016 Bozeman sign code shows a ban on LED, inflatable and rooftop signs. Additionally, “A comprehensive sign plan shall be submitted for all commercial, office, industrial, and civic uses consisting of two or more tenants or occupant spaces on a lot(s) subject to a common development permit or plan.” The application fee is $220.