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Aldermen crack down on sticker mania, branding it ‘guerrilla-marketing’

Marketing stickers on public property

Ald. Brendan Reilly showed his colleagues a series of pictures of city property covered in marketing stickers in his ward. | Provided

How many times have you walked down a Chicago street and seen commercial stickers slapped all over city bus shelters, bike racks, streets signs and light poles?

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said the problem has gotten so bad on the CTA bus stop signs in his downtown ward, “you can’t discern” the bus number or the route.

On Wednesday, Reilly persuaded the City Council’s License Committee to crack down on what he called “guerrilla marketing” tactics that not only make Chicago streets look tacky but also cost beleaguered Chicago taxpayers a ton of money.

“To clean up one block in this condition costs the taxpayers almost $3,000. You multiply that by 200 blocks, you’re talking about real money. With the current burden that voters are facing here in Chicago, I don’t think we need to be subsidizing illegal marketing campaigns,” Reilly said.

To make the case for a crackdown, Reilly conducted a show-and-tell of sorts, using 10 photos of a single block in his downtown ward, showing poles and bike racks covered with stickers. The alderman said he has “dozens upon dozen of blocks that look just like that.”

“This is a growing problem. It’s the cheapest form of marketing. And when you don’t have to pay to restore the city infrastructure, what a great deal. But the taxpayers ultimately do have to pay for that. Hopefully, this ordinance will discourage the practice,” he said.

City bike rack covered in stickers

Ald. Brendan Reilly showed his colleagues a series of pictures of city property covered in marketing stickers in his ward. | Provided

The ordinance advanced Wednesday replaces a law that wasn’t being enforced because of concerns that it would violate the constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech.

To get around those concerns, the new version more clearly defines “commercial advertising matter.”  It’s defined, among other things, as “any written material that proposes or promotes….any exchange of goods or service by a for-profit or not-for-profit business for valuable consideration” or “any activity that requires a license.”

Fines in the new ordinance would also increase dramatically. It has been $200 to $1,000 for each offense. The new penalty would be $200 to $1,000 for every sticker, for every day the stickers remain on city property.

The fine for placing handbills on windshields, which can range from $25 to $50, likewise would now be enforced per day, not just per incident.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) asked what’ll happen when the stickers don’t clearly identify the website or phone number of the offending party. Will the city Departments of Law or Business and Consumer Protection track down the sticker perpetrator? Or will the responsibility fall to the local alderman?

“We’re kind of doing it ad-hoc on our own. We’re trying to start with the companies intentionally doing this as a viral marketing campaign. That’s a big chunk of the volume. We haven’t actually come up with an artful solution for those folks we can’t identify,” Reilly said.

“The hope here is that this is at least a big enough  deterrent for those folks who are proactively engaging in this viral marketing strategy to cut it out.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) is not concerned about the enforcement particulars.

He’s just happy City Hall is doing something — anything — about the proliferation of stickers.

“I have Loyola in my ward. …I also have DePaul in Lincoln Park. And the sticker phenomenon is greater on college campuses. College kids use this as marketing for their businesses and their concerts and shows. It’s a real problem,” Hopkins said.

“I see `em mostly on utility poles, kiosks, bus stops, signs of all kinds. And the stickers they’re using are extraordinarily difficult to get off. It’s not like the old wheat paste days. They’re very adhesive. And when you go to peel it off, generally the little corner comes off in your fingers and the rest of it sticks to the pole.”

The ordinance approved Wednesday steers clear of political stickers.

“Politicians shouldn’t be doing that, either. They’re destroying our infrastructure as well,” Reilly said.

“[But] that’s political free speech. This is talking about commercial messaging, branding and corporate logos. We are being very careful to respect peoples’ First Amendment rights. But there have to be limits.”