Sunday, October 05, 2008

Inflatable Gorillas?

I can hear Oz’s Wicked Witch now: Don’t make me send my inflatable gorillas. My outsized Elvises. My fat yellow duckies. Nevertheless, while we’re trying to recover from the effects of the Ike, so is Jim Purtee.

A Sandra Bretting article in today’s Houston Chronicle, identifies Purtee as the owner of Houston Balloons & Promotions LLC. And sure enough, there he is on the company website.

He’s the marketer who makes certain there’s an inflatable pink gorilla or an immense Yosemite Sam-like figure on top of every car dealership, tanning salon and independent insurance agency between Texas and Florida. (You can see the full line-up, gorillas, ducks and all, here – hurry before they’re gone.)

As the article points out, Purtee’s company earned some $1.2 million from 400 inflatable balloons and banners – all in support of small businesses. Purtee makes a good point about it: Small-business owners can’t afford to create and run radio or TV commercials. But for about $1,200 they can get four weeks’ worth of drive-by attention with, say, a 30-foot luchador complete with mask.

While the Ike cost Purtee about a million bucks worth of business, the City of Houston would like to cost him his entire livelihood. It wants to ban the entire category of cold air inflatables from our highways and byways. So this is a billboard controversy…only with really strikingly ugly (or charming) balloons.

It’s no secret how Houston feels about large-scale outdoor advertising: Utterly indecisive.

No matter what side you take – beautification of our city’s highways or freedom for free enterprise – someone’s going to be upset. Is the government right to ban this form of outdoor?

Professionally, I wonder about the medium’s effectiveness. According to the only US trade group, the Inflatable Advertising Dealers Association, “The products of IADA members command attention, standing out in the crowd of other advertising messages. They increase the visibility of your business, promote name recognition and aid in brand awareness.”

Absent real metrics (documented increases in walk-in traffic, for example), I take the IADA claims with a pound of air. Furthermore, most of the inflatables are so…banal. (That’s one of Purtee’s appeals, I think: Generic inflatables that are cost-effectively repurposed from real estate agent to discount furniture store.)

While seeing a big blue elephant on an NTB store is whimsical, I confess to being puzzled by the large purple coyote (I think) appearing for CITGO. Appearances by a random selection of generic critters, all 20-30 feet tall, is silly.

When an inflatable is strikingly designed or fits an unusual purpose, I know it can have a heck of an effect. Swiss ad agency ET&H created a giant, three-dimensional inflatable of its client Tilsiter Cheese’s logo years ago: Two dairy cows side-by-side. Quite striking and much used throughout Europe. it rightfully generated a huge amount of attention. (The cheese company has since turned to an ordinary hot air balloon, something of a letdown.)

Since Purtee is litigating with the City, I wonder how the courts will rule. Purtee maintains that it’s his right to deliver an advertising tool like his giant inflatables “as long as it’s not vulgar or untrue.” I suspect – no, I damn well know – that we’re into the realm of the subjective. As the article inquires, how will the green gorilla atop a cellular telephone store be perceived?

Is beauty, or cleverness, in the eye of the beholder? Or the inflator?


Richard Laurence Baron said...

Had this been a photo of an actual huge gorilla instead of a balloon, you could have seen right up its nostrils! Happy Sunday...

Jim Purtee said...

Hi Richard:

I enjoyed the article. Thought you might want a brief on what I’ve sued the city over. Two years ago I was put in the position by the city’s deaf ear on my issues with the "attention-getting devices" ordinance to hire legal council…Baker & Hostettler (a quite large firm).

We approached the city with a meeting between the head of the sign department and a city attorney. We simply wanted the city to stop enforcing a portion of the ordinance which said you could put banners on the balloons so long as the message was generic. That is, i.e., "sale," "grand opening," etc. We were prohibited from putting a message such as "Camera Phones $29.99" or from putting a large inflatable "chair" on top of a furniture store. We could put the same chair on a gas station if we wished…but not a furniture store. Absurd! We sued over 1st, 5th & 14th Amendment issues. You and I still have the right in this country to put what we want on a banner (as it were).

In any case, at that meeting at City Hall (and this may/may not be hard for you to believe), the city attorney stated - in front of everyone - "if you want to pursue this…we’ll just ban inflatables altogether." I was stunned. A threat! Pure and simple. No different than 1928 Chicago when some hoodlum would tell a small business owner, "We want 10% or we’ll burn your store down!"

Now it seems the city is acting on the threat.

I am in Idaho and unable to get to the meeting. Would be great if you could speak for us…and all the small businesses using the product.

Thanks, Jim.

S. Reeves said...

I read this story in the Chronicle and was immediately frustrated by all the wacky regulations. Seems the concept of using unique inflatables can be deflated so easily.

When we were kids it was exciting to see search lights in the sky and big monsters on top of tents for grand openings.

I have always loved the gorilla and even used it in print campaign a few years ago. I wonder why the gorilla is the "king inflatable"?

Now I don't want one of the inflatables on the top of my neighbors house, but look at all the Halloween decor that has gone inflatable in folks front yards. No one seems to be complaining at city hall -- yet.

Colin Hageney said...

In a city like Houston, I think inflatables are used by companies that don't have sophisticated marketing talent. However, if the purpose of an inflatable is to turn your head while in the car so you know - yes, I can purchase a Hummer on I-10 near Dairy Ashford - then I think it is a nice economical alternative. Personally, I've become immune to this sort of advertising but my 4 year old son squeals with delight when he spots one on the horizon.

Nice blog post, Richard!

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Thank you, Colin - and there you have one great reason: Your four-year-old son. Squealing with delight is one of the pure-metal pleasures of children...all ages. And isn't it fun to see what the inflatables-makers come up with next? Best of Wednesday...RLB.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

The latest round in the Great Ballon Fight? Yesterday, Jim Purtee wons a million-dollar settlement from US District Court after the judge rules that the City of Houston has enforced the relevant law "inconsistently."


Way to go, Jim!