For people doing everything in their power to stand out, they’re surprisingly invisible. They dance. They spin. They wave their hands. And still, the cars pass by in a slow but steady stream. … L.A. motorists seemingly unmoved by the claims of “Cash for gold!” “Giant shoe sale!” and “First month’s rent free!”
In this increasingly digital world, these sign spinners who use biceps, delts and hamstrings to promote the product in their hands seem oddly out of place. I don’t know whether it’s independence or desperation that has driven them to the sidewalks of Los Angeles in seemingly greater numbers than ever before, but I’m determined to find out. So one morning, instead of averting my eyes and driving past like I do every other morning, I decide maybe it’s time to stop.
There’s a combination of nervousness and excitement I feel as I park my car on Lincoln Boulevard and approach Paul, my first sign spinner. He’s an African-American kid in his 20s. Of course, it’s hard to ascertain his exact age because he’s wearing a Statue of Liberty costume with cape and crown. Based on gender and ethnicity, it does not appear that likeness to our Lady of Liberty is a prerequisite for employment.
Within minutes, I’ve learned the basics. Paul works four hours at a time, gets paid $8.25 an hour and earns a bonus for each person who enters the tax office saying, “The statue guy sent me.” Then things get more interesting. I discover he’s also studying to be a marine biologist at a community college with hopes of transferring to Long Beach State.
As a partner and creative director at WDCW, an ad agency whose mission is to help big brands like ESPN, Vizio and Alaska Airlines build what we like to call their “cultural capital,” there’s a tendency to view sign spinning as one of the lower rungs on our industry ladder. And yet, I can’t help but respect these people who, like standup comedians, ply their craft in the most stripped-down fashion. You could say this is advertising in its purest form – just a person and whatever values their personality imbues upon the brand in their hands.
Over the last few months, I’ve interviewed a couple of dozen spinners: There’s Tammy, who was laid off from her job three years ago and has four children, including a daughter in college; Jason, who is on break from school in East Los Angeles and got the spinning job because his sister works in the Cash for Gold office; and Ernie, who is enrolled in tech school downtown and was flashed twice on the job last week – once by a woman and once by a man.