The glowing billboards aren’t advertising a product. They’re offering a tribute to law enforcement, the South L.A. community and the families of the victims of the Grim Sleeper.

The digital billboards show the faces of 12 people; 11 were slain by the serial killer and the 12th survived his attack.

After the July 7 arrest of Lonnie David Franklin Jr. as the alleged Grim Sleeper, Clear Channel Outdoor posted its tribute on three digital billboards in South Los Angeles.

The electronic billboards, however, may be sending another message in the battle over where such signs can be placed in Los Angeles.

“It’s a very clever public relations effort,” said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “It puts people like us who are against digital billboards on the defensive. Who wants to be seen as saying the visual environment of the city is more important than catching a rapist?”

The tribute to the victims of the Grim Sleeper comes amid a war over digital billboards in Los Angeles. On one side of the battle lines are neighborhood groups, City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who want to limit digital billboards. On the other side are the advertising companies that say the billboards are effective and often liked by the public.

Clear Channel contends that both advertisers and consumers like digital billboards because they are television – visual and timely.

During the recent World Cup, the company posted real-time scores of the games. Likewise, a fast-food client might advertise breakfast in the morning, salads at lunchtime and entrees at night.

“Anecdotally, we know that consumers really enjoy that kind of immediacy and sense of connection,” said Layne Lawson, director for communications for Clear Channel Outdoor in Los Angeles. “Immediacy is extraordinarily important for law enforcement in situations like Amber Alerts that can go up within minutes of a child’s abduction, or the bridge collapse in Minneapolis a few years ago where the signs allowed safety officials to divert traffic from a disaster in real time.”

Councilman Bernard Parks, whose district includes the neighborhoods where the victims were killed, thinks the digital signs modernize the urban landscape.

“I would trade a digital billboard any day for the antiquated wooden eyesores that exist in my district,” he said.

A Clear Channel press release stated that the campaign was done “in partnership” with Parks, whose name appears on the signs.

Previous campaign

It’s not the first billboard campaign in the Grim Sleeper case. In 2008, the Los Angeles Police Department asked Parks for help soliciting information from the public on the case.

The councilman contacted Clear Channel, and the Phoenix-based company agreed to help. In 2008 and again in 2009, the company put up traditional vinyl billboards with pictures of the victims and information about a $500,000 reward offered by the City Council.

In May, Clear Channel used three digital billboards, two on the Gardena (91) Freeway near the area of the killings, and a third on the Santa Monica (10) Freeway. The boards showed a sketch of the killer, provided by the victim who survived.

Although the billboards didn’t play a role in the arrest of the alleged Grim Sleeper – so named because of a long period where he was apparently not killing – Clear Channel said digital billboards have a history of capturing criminals. The company has a list of 26 criminals the FBI has caught since 2007 because their pictures were displayed on digital billboards.

In May, a 27-year-old sex offender escaped a halfway house in Ohio and fled with a 4-year-old girl and the girl’s mother. When the U.S. Marshals Service contacted Clear Channel, the company put up images on digital boards across the country; the next day the fugitive was arrested near San Diego.

“A tipster who recognized the pictures on one of the digital billboards called 911,” Peter Elliott, a spokesman for the Marshals Service, said in a statement. “This case shows that digital billboards can be an important and effective law enforcement tool in time-critical matters.”

Clear Channel’s Lawson said digital boards work well because the message can be posted within hours and changed based on developments in the case. With the Grim Sleeper, the company wanted to pay tribute to the victims as well as the efforts by law enforcement and victims’ families.

“We do this all the time; it has nothing to do with political issues,” Lawson said. “It does a disservice to the memory of 11 victims to say we had other reasons for doing it. Public service campaigns are a tradition in the media, including outdoor advertising.”

But Hathaway of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight said outdoor advertising companies across the country have touted digital billboards as a law enforcement tool as a way to counter complaints.

“These same companies have ridden roughshod over cities and municipalities when it comes to sign regulations,” he said. “Based on my long experience, these people don’t have any sense of civic duty. This is a way to sanitize the negative aspects of their business.”

While Hathaway acknowledged that digital signs might have some beneficial use for society, he said the only way to develop a rational public policy about them is to weigh the positives against the negative consequences of allowing the signs to proliferate.

“What is the message for people whose backyards are intruded upon by these bright, constantly changing signs?” he asked. “That they should suck it up because that sign might someday help catch a murderer? I don’t think that’s a good way to approach a public policy decision.”

Tom Hollihan, professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism, sees the Grim Sleeper tribute as a subtle form of political persuasion because it immediately associates digital billboards with a public benefit.

“When they put messages on the signs that have value, the community will remember it,” he said. “They don’t have to explicitly make the argument. Just like a political candidate, they have identified their brand with the public good.”

‘Absolute ban’

The regulation battle goes back to 2002, when the City Council passed a ban on all modifications to billboards, including converting them to digital signs. CBS and Clear Channel sued to overturn the ban, and in response the city signed an agreement in 2006 that allowed those two companies to upgrade 840 of their old billboards to digital.

Today, the companies have 101 digital billboards in the city; 90 belong to Clear Channel.

Meanwhile, other outdoor advertising companies filed lawsuits arguing that the agreement amounted to unequal treatment favoring Clear Channel and CBS. In October, an appeals judge threw out the 2006 agreement, meaning the city could shut down the 101 digital billboards already in operation.

But Clear Channel and CBS filed a suit to block any action. Pending the resolution of that suit, the city is not allowing any new digital signs, said Jane Usher, special assistant in the City Attorney’s Office.

“There is an absolute ban on digital billboards,” she told the Business Journal. “That was the law and that is the law.”

Usher estimates it will take two years to settle the legal disputes, but that could stretch out longer because she said outdoor companies have a history of delay tactics.

Parks said he has not received any complaints about digital billboards in his district and most of his constituents think they are a public service.

Lawson at Clear Channel said his company would like to install more digital boards in Parks’ district and the rest of Los Angeles, but he didn’t want the company’s battle with the city to take any attention away from the tribute to the Grim Sleeper victims. Lawson said the tribute would continue to rotate on the three digital billboards for the next several weeks.

“We were trying to get out awareness of a serial killer, to help the LAPD the best we could,” he said. “Does this demonstrate the unique value of digital billboards? Of course. The medium is powerful and it connects with people out of their home. This is one in a long list of positive examples where our digital billboards have made a difference.”

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