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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Giant, Illegal Super Bowl Ads Will Be Gone By End of Today…Except, Only Part of Them

Posted By on Thu, Jan 28, 2016 at 1:18 PM


The clock is ticking, and those tower-sized Super Bowl ads downtown are coming down...sort of. City officials did a double-take when the huger-than-huge Verizon and VISA billboards appeared on the sides of Embarcadero Four and One Market Street, respectively. If they’re not gone by 5 p.m. today, subpoenas will fly.

According to the city attorney, at least the Verizon ad is illegal twice over. First, it’s a violation of Article 6 of the planning code, a venerable 1965-era law that says you’re only allowed to put a giant sign on the side of your building if it’s advertising the businesses in that building. On top of that, voters passed a law in 2002 barring new billboards. City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s complaint letter to Verizon spells it out:

“Proposition G provides that no new general advertising shall be permitted anywhere in the city as of March 5, 2002," the letter reads. "Thus, after March 5, 2002, no new general advertising signs are allowed in San Francisco.”

After consulting an atlas and a calendar, that seems pretty airtight.

Verizon says (via a 28-word statement insisting the whole thing was an “honest misunderstanding”) that it will remove the ads, although they don’t say when. The Super Bowl Host Committee says it will take the ads down today…mostly.

“Portions of the banners will be removed,” says Host Committee spokesman Nathan Ballard. “The story is over.” Which portions? “We’ll see. We’re working on that right now.”

The ambiguity stems from the fact that the ginormous Verizon billboard is actually two-thirds legal. Specifically, the bottom two thirds, the part that reads “Super Bowl 50.” Since the city specifically invited Super Bowl City here, and because we’re making public concessions for it, that makes it partly a “civic event,” and therefore fair game for vertigo-inducing ads, since both relevant laws bar only business advertisements.

It’s also perfectly legal to acknowledge the sponsors of such an event in those civic banners, which is what the Host Committee thought it was doing here. The error was in making the sponsor acknowledgement 15-stories tall, 40 feet in the air. The void-like white background that you can’t possibly look away from was probably a mistake too. Live and learn.

So, presumably, most if not all of the top third of the ad on Embarcadero 4 will be stripped by 5 p.m., leaving the huge black Super Bowl 50 section, plus whatever degree of Verizon schilling is still permissible under the law.

“The corporate acknowledgment can be no more than 15 percent of the banner space,” says city attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey. “And it can only be the logo; no slogans.”

Interestingly, the nearby VISA ad (which is significantly smaller at about 7 stories, but still jarring) is sticking around.

“Those are kosher,” says Ballard, “They’ll remain.”

Why? Well, supposedly, although it now looks like just a big, honking VISA ad, the building wrap is not yet finished, and will shortly feature other materials that will bring it up to code.

Planning department spokesperson Gina Simi notes that while the Embarcadero ad was issued a “notice of violation,” the VISA ad on Market Street only got a “notice of complaint”…which, as you can probably extrapolate on your own, simply means that someone has complained about it, but not that any action is pending.

So, depending who you ask, the problem is either resolved, or just as ambiguous as ever. Which, so far, has been our Super Bowl City experience in a nutshell.

Update #1: Although legal action has been averted, that giant VISA ad on the side of One Market Plaza is still something of a mystery. The logo is clearly much larger than the legally prescribed 15 percent of the billboard space, and yet Host Committee spokesman Nathan Ballard insists that "the Visa piece is, and always has been, 100 percent compliant" with the law.

To the naked eye, that's just not so. But workers milling around Super Bowl City pointed out that there appears to be more installation work being done, suggesting that there was yet more of the ad to come. This afternoon, some friendly MTA workers spilled the beans: The nondescript panels stuck to the side of the building beneath the VISA logo are actually "giant TV screens." The MTA folks watched them tested last night — something that apparently scared the bejeezus out of them in the dead of night.

Is VISA going to be streaming the big game on the side of One Market Plaza, or maybe just using it to showcase some Super Bowl memories? Anyone grouchy about the existing ad is probably not going to like this any better...but at least it respects Prop G.

Update #2: Nathan Ballard writes: "The Super Bowl Host Committee has been working in partnership with Visa for the last six months to build what can best be described as a gift to the city of San Francisco. This art installation, developed in conjunction with a well respected, world-famous San Francisco firm, Obscura Digital – known for their work with The Vatican and San Francisco City Hall — is not only beautiful, but in 100% compliance with all City regulations. We are eager for Visa to unveil this civic celebration as Super Bowl City comes to life on Saturday, January 30. Spectators can view iconic visuals of the San Francisco skyline and Bay Area, as well as exciting NFL-themed displays, and vibrant technology images which reflect the innovative spirit of our hometown. It is Visa’s tribute to the Bay Area, which we hope every San Franciscan will be proud to share with the world. It’s something residents and visitors alike can enjoy." 

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