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WTF: Do Mobile Advertisements Violate Vermont’s Ban on Billboards?

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Published August 18, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 19, 2021 at 2:23 p.m.


Mobile billboard - COURTESY HEATHER AND PHILIP BATALION
  • Courtesy Heather And Philip Batalion
  • Mobile billboard

Last month, Heather Batalion of Essex Junction was driving in the Burlington area when she and her husband, Philip, spotted what looked like a large box truck. On closer inspection, they realized that the only thing the commercial vehicle was delivering was an advertising message. On its bed was a large, two-sided sign announcing the opening of a new Chase Bank branch on Church Street in Burlington.

Batalion had seen mobile billboards before in Las Vegas and New York City, but never in the Green Mountain State.

"I was shocked," said Batalion, whose husband snapped a photo of it. "I saw it drive by, and I was like, Wait: Are we in Vermont?"

In 1968, Vermont became the first state in the country to ban off-premises outdoor advertising signs, aka billboards. Opposed at the time by pro-business interests as a communist plot to usurp property owners' rights, Vermont's billboard law now enjoys widespread public support for protecting the landscape from visual clutter.

Over the years, Seven Days readers have asked this column to investigate whether other signs and structures violated the state's billboard ban. The items in question have included political lawn signs (which are exempt from the law if smaller than 150 square feet); three large wooden crosses on a Randolph hillside (which are protected under the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment); and a giant illuminated middle finger sculpture in Westford. The last is a constitutionally protected form of expression that only advertises its owner's ire at town officials.

A similar question arose in 2018 about signage mounted on the wooden fence that surrounds the CityPlace Burlington construction site. In that case, the answer was less definitive. Then-city attorney Eileen Blackwood opined that the signs were temporary, merely decorative and not billboards.

However, John Kessler, general counsel to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, disagreed. According to Kessler, who also serves on the Travel Information Council, which regulates signage statewide, the multiple CityPlace signs exceeded 150 square feet in total and were in a public right-of-way. Therefore, they violated the law. The signs were removed in 2019.

But what about mobile billboards? Title 10 Chapter 21, the statute that prohibits off-premises advertising signs, doesn't even mention the word "billboard," let alone mobile billboards. According to Ian Degutis, head of the Vermont Agency of Transportation's Traffic Operations and Traffic Mobility units, "AOT has no official position on the matter."

Do It Outdoors, the advertising agency based in York, Pa., that Chase Bank hired to provide the rolling signs, calls itself "the largest national mobile billboard and field marketing company." Its clients range from major consumer brands such as Nikon, McDonald's, Sam's Club and Pepsi to nonprofits that fight smoking, human trafficking, gun violence and opioid abuse.

And, like geese and dandelions, mobile billboards rarely appear in isolation.

"One moving mobile billboard will turn heads," the company's website reads. "But a fleet of 25 mobile billboards, one after the other, infiltrating the roadway will grab everyone's attention and create a heart-pounding emotional impact."

For a typical media blitz, Do It Outdoors' drivers average 120 miles a day within a three- to five-mile radius of a targeted address. This approach raises inevitable questions about the environmental sustainability of such campaigns, as well as the "heart-pounding emotional impact" of swarms of billboards "infiltrating" Vermont's roads.

Regis Maher, president and cofounder of Do It Outdoors, called his company's mobile billboards "an eco-friendly media format." He noted that the company repurposes its vinyl signage and powers all of its trucks with biodiesel, a renewable energy source that burns cleaner than petroleum diesel.

When asked whether mobile billboards violate Vermont's billboard law, Maher asserted that they differ materially from the static roadside variety.

"We're much the same as a Budweiser truck or a FedEx delivery truck," Maher said. "Our product is delivering a message, much in the same way a CVS truck brings packaged goods to CVS stores."

Does Maher have a point?

Degutis said Vermont's billboard law includes several exemptions, including "signs located on or in the rolling stock of common carriers," meaning train cars, as well as those "on registered and inspected motor vehicles." The latter explains why a Cabot tractor-trailer truck bearing the image of a giant wedge of cheese and the words "world's best cheddar" isn't considered a billboard.

Are mobile billboards no different from FedEx and Cabot trucks?

"That very well may be the case," said Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes), who chairs the House Transportation Committee. According to Lanpher, the Batalions aren't the only ones who've noticed the rolling billboards. Both she and committee vice chair Rep. Charles "Butch" Shaw (R-Rutland) have heard about them from other constituents.

"This might be something worth putting on our radar screen for the coming session," Lanpher said. If mobile billboards are deemed a loophole in the law, they could be parked in the middle of a field for a week, a month or a year, provided that they're registered and inspected.

"Vermont may not want to go down this slippery slope," she continued.

However, Lanpher doesn't believe the legislature would ban all signage on commercial vehicles. As she put it, "That would be like stepping into the stupid zone."

And, as is common in the world of business, consumers may have the final word on the matter. Mobile billboards seem "out of touch with Vermonters' values," and, if they prove to be unpopular enough, other businesses likely won't use them, Batalion said.

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