A twist on business: Cities differ on allowing sign twirlers

John+Murray+catches+his+sign+while+standing+on+one+hand+along+El+Camino+Real+near+Encinitas+Boulevard+on+Feb.+16.+Murray+has+been+spinning+signs+on+and+off+for+six+years.

John Murray catches his sign while standing on one hand along El Camino Real near Encinitas Boulevard on Feb. 16. Murray has been spinning signs on and off for six years.

Christopher Earley

Christopher Earley

When sign spinner John Murray goes to work on a busy street corner, he attracts a lot of attention. But attracting attention is just part of the job.

With a full head of curly and wild red hair, the 21-year-old Grossmont College student can flip a sign with the best of them. As traffic rolls past him on Encinitas Boulevard, Murray wears a huge smile, all the while performing impressive acrobatics with his sign. Every now and again, he’ll get a thumbs-up or a shout of encouragement from passing drivers.

Employed by San Diego-based AArrow Advertising, one of the world’s largest providers of sign spinners, Murray enjoys being outside and putting on a show.

“There’s not a lot about it that you can’t like,” Murray said. “You get to switch up for different companies and go all over the place. It’s interesting and you get to listen to music.”

Murray and his counterparts are known by several monikers: sign spinners, sign twirlers, human directionals and even guerilla marketers. And while fairly new in the world of advertising, there is little question that this form is causing people to talk.

Sometimes seen as a nuisance and a distraction for drivers, certain cities in San Diego County have taken to banning spinners. Currently, Encinitas allows for sign spinners on public property. Carlsbad allows spinners, but only on private property and out of the public’s right of way.

San Marcos is one city that simply had enough of the clusters of signs and advertising that had been building along its sidewalks and streets, and opted for an outright ban. The city’s current sign ordinance doesn’t allow for any human sign spinners. Even electronic or robotic types are prohibited. They’re also very strict on the number of signs each business is permitted to display.

“We just want a professional-looking city,” said Karl Schwarm, director of Housing and Neighborhood Services for the city of San Marcos. “The clutter just gets out of control if you don’t regulate it. So we just say that you can’t have it.”

Schwarm also said that the ban goes beyond targeting clutter. While law enforcement would not specifically comment on the risks of the spinners, sign ordinances such as the one in San Marcos are specifically designed to avoid distractions to drivers in their communities.

“Your eyes are distracted by things that move on the side of the road,” Schwarm said. “Spinners are a distraction because you’re going to be drawn to them. We’ve always looked at them as a distracter in city’s visual code.”

But do sign spinners actually bring in more business? According to Joe Ambert, vice president of sales and marketing at AArrow, there’s little question of the spinners’ success as an effective advertising tool.

“Not everyone likes to share their numbers,” Ambert said. “But businesses and owners will generally see anywhere from a 20 to 40 percent increase.”

According to Renae Scott, chief marketing officer of Round Table Pizza, half of the chain’s restaurants saw an increase in the number of lunch buffets purchased, something she said she feels is a direct result of sign spinners.

“They were great and our traffic definitely increased the days we used them to promote our event,” said Shawn Pensinger, spokeswoman for Ashley Furniture.

While traveling down any busy road where they are allowed to operate, there are obvious differences between the spinners. On one corner stands one who is full of energy and enthusiasm. And on another corner, one stands methodically spinning a sign in the same direction. Some even sit in chairs or on the ground.

Ambert emphasized the difference between professional outlets such as AArrow and businesses that hire spinners with little or no training. AArrow spinners will typically receive two to four weeks of training before they’re sent out onto a street corner, he said. And the training goes beyond the mechanics of flipping signs. AArrow also spends time teaching its spinners how to time stoplight cycles and to change techniques according to the traffic, something he said is designed to minimize driver distraction.

AArrow spinners are also often under close supervision by auditors like Ambert, who spend time monitoring them and keeping track of their adherence to safety policies.

“Training is part of what makes us different,” Ambert said. “We won’t just let anyone come out here.”

There have been no complaints to the city councils of Encinitas and Carlsbad about sign spinners. In fact, some residents applaud the style of advertising and said that it gives both businesses and spinners an opportunity to make money.

“I don’t see them as a distraction,” said 66-year-old Encinitas resident David Witkowski, who has noticed the spinners while driving and riding his bicycle. “They’re always courteous. And I think that they’re cute. I especially like the ones that dance.”

Christopher Earley is a San Diego freelance writer