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Why Aren’t More Office Buildings Giant Billboards?

Lagging office markets across the country have owners and asset managers searching for ways to supplement a building’s income. Some are looking to turn their place in a city’s skyline into an advertising opportunity. Vinyl building wraps are becoming more common, showing enduring signs of popularity despite the rising prominence of digital advertising, but the legality of such advertising is not easy to understand, clouding the earning potential. 

Vinyl building wraps rely on tried and true methods, not recent technological developments. Marketers have been plastering walls with paper advertisements and adhesive for centuries. Some walls have decades of ads layered on top of each other, creating a timeline core sample of popular culture. What’s changed is how the advertisements are applied. Vinyl wraps work particularly well with glass curtain wall buildings. Easy to apply and even easier to remove, they turn buildings into a canvass while protecting the view of occupants. It doesn’t have to be glass, almost any type of material can be wrapped, including brick and stucco. Usually reserved for the biggest events that attract tens of thousands like the Super Bowl or ComicCon, advertisers are beginning to see the value of building wraps for all manner of occasions and campaigns but many are left wondering what they’re allowed to put up. 

Cost vs benefit

Vinyl building wraps offer advertisers a unique canvas that is highly visible both to a large number of people and at a great distance. Turning a city’s iconic building into a giant billboard is hard to miss. For owners, vinyl wraps offer additional monetization outside of leasing. The wraps also act as traditional window films, lowering cooling costs. Removal is as easy as peeling it off, leaving no permanent alterations to the asset. You don’t have to wrap your entire building to make some extra cash. Entrance wraps, highlights, upper floor wraps, window features, billboards, and even digital projection are all highly sought after by advertisers. 

The hard part is reaching a deal for these placements because each is so unique. First, it comes down to the advertisers who may have a set price in mind. Renting the exterior space of a building for advertising means offering a meaningful amount of profit to convince the asset owner to entertain a conversation. The cost of a vinyl wrap depends on the size of the building, the quality of the print, and the complexity of installation. A vinyl wrap’s value depends heavily on the size of the building and how much traffic sees the building. All of this requires initial site surveys to determine viability and value. Building owners are typically looking at somewhere between $4,000 and $10,000 a month. 

Some cities have local ordinances banning building wraps. Laws around what is allowed and what isn’t can get confusing. In New York City, the Department of Buildings (DOB) is tasked with regulating advertising. The NYC DOB breaks down signs into advertising and accessory signs, as do most other cities. An accessory sign directs attention to a business at the sign’s location. Advertising signs direct attention to some other place and so are not allowed in residential or most commercial districts or within two hundred feet of a highway. Zoning, frontage, and the type of sign all play a major role in determining if a building advertisement is legal. Enforcement in NYC has been found to be selective but New York is far from the only city with strict laws around advertising on buildings. Detroit, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Hawaii all have laws targeting building wraps but just like in NYC, enforcement is notoriously difficult. 

In recent years Detroit is been attempting to flex its muscle to prevent owners from putting up illegal wraps on their buildings. The issue came to a head when assets owners with legal signage began to point out all the owners with illegal signage to the city. “If you have to ask us, they are flagrantly illegal,” Andrus McDonald, president of real estate for Detroit-based outdoor ad firm Brooklyn Outdoor told the Detroit Free Press. “But a lot of these building owners have owned these buildings through thick and thin, there’s no reason they should not be allowed to benefit from this exponential growth in demand.” McDonald said Detroit building owners were earning more than $1 million a year in extra revenue before the city began its crackdown. 

What’s got people so upset about building wraps? The backlash to marketing opportunities has a long history, but advertising in public spaces is a particularly sore subject. There’s no way to avoid seeing a building wrap if you cross its path. That’s what makes them valuable, but it’s also what makes many locals hate them. Unescapable advertisements in public spaces are seen by some as a sort of visual oppression. The bigger the advertisements, the more oppressive it can seem and building wraps are the largest advertisements of all. Uban landscape critics say invasive advertising dulls surroundings, making people feel less connected to their environment, thereby tolerating more advertising, fueling a cycle that saturates our urban spaces with advertisements. The view of many cities with laws against aggressive ads is that public space is a public good and therefore subject to aesthetical environment protection. Private companies are not entitled to the use of public space for commercialization opportunities. Determining what is private, what is public, and what type of signs are permitted is a nuanced question many cities lack a good answer for. 

Absent clear guidance, some owners have plowed ahead. Super Bowl 50 hosted in San Francisco saw the owners of Embarcadero Four and One Market Street in hot water after residents began wondering why the sides of the buildings were covered in vinyl wraps advertising Verison and VISA. San Francisco’s 1965-era law only allows buildings to advertise business operating on-site. Another law passed in 2002 outlaws new general advertising anywhere in the city. The issue gets at the heart of confusing laws around building wraps. The part advertising Super Bowl, nearly two-thirds of the signs, are technically legal since the city specifically invited the Super Bowl and because each building owner was making public concessions to the host committee. It’s also legal to acknowledge the events sponsors, Version and VISA. What was illegal is the size. Parts of the sign were forced to be taken down. Owners might have got away with it if the sign weren’t 15-stories tall. The VISA sign, only seven stories tall, avoided any cuts by using extra space to add features bringing it up to code. The NFL and Super Bowl host committee said it was an honest mistake. With such confusing laws around building wraps, that sounds like a plausible explanation unless you know anything about the NFL. 

The NFL has pushed advertising boundaries in host cities so habitually they’ve established legal terminology around ‘clean zones.’ The zones permit anyone who wishes to advertise or promote commercial activity in any way connected to the Super Bowl the right to do so as long as they receive permission from the NFL and obtain a limited duration license. Clean zones have become a standard operating procedure for Super Bowl Host committees, leading to skyscrapers being wrapped in vinyl with giant Super Bowl logos every year. Allowing the country’s most profitable, privately-owned sports league to do what it wants while enforcing laws against other private businesses further muddies the water around building wraps. Commercial owners looking to install their own wraps after liking what they saw during the Super Bowl may not like what they find: the NFL has more rights to advertise on buildings than most owners do. 

Building wraps are a great way to boost a property’s net operating income but the money is not easy. Even in municipalities where they are allowed, there’s an encyclopedia of stipulations and regulations about the type of sign, size of the sign, location, height, and content. Many owners simply have too much pride in their building to plaster it in vinyl, the money isn’t worth the hit to a building’s reputation. The value of skyscrapers is what’s inside, not what’s on the facade outside. Building wraps may become more common, but they likely never be the norm. Unless, of course, you’re hosting the Super Bowl.

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