We were rubbernecking while driving our car on the way to Blue Mountain a few weeks back. We couldn't help it. A scruffy guy in a white shirt was strumming a cardboard guitar. Brooks Street traffic trolled by.
Dude was rocking. He had on earmuff-sized headphones. We realized on closer inspection that the guy's cardboard guitar was actually a sign advertising the services of a nearby oil-change business. "Yay," we thought—a lube joint entertaining the masses. That's initiative.
That's why we grew intrigued—and a little concerned—when we learned about a regulation making its way through city government that could officially ban "human signs." The rule would apply not just to guitarists pitching lube jobs but also the variety of disheveled and sometimes sunburned people who show up carrying advertisements on city streets.
Our municipal sign directives already run 26 pages. Flashing, blinking, and scintillating signs are banned. Animated displays (dancing turkeys, for instance) are also prohibited. Nowhere, though, do the rules say peep about "sign walkers."
Missoula Office of Planning and Grants Director Mike Barton says human signs have always, in recent history, been banned, despite the fact that city zoning regulations don't actually spell that out. Barton's interpretation is based on other zoning restrictions, including a rule against boulevard displays and a mandate that commercial signs be mounted. "You don't get to put up more signs just because you're giving them to a person to walk around with," he says. "You can't have a kid walking out on 6th Street with a sign, holding it up...They're obnoxious."
We get it. They're distracting. But then, lots of things are distracting: casino signs pitching hot Keno pots and cold beer; ugly, peeling billboards featuring people with very white teeth; and messages left when lettering falls off or gets ripped off, as when the Muffler Bandit, also on Brooks Street, for months remained the "Muff Bandit."
The Muffler Bandit's Brooks Street moniker comes in a close second to the performance of the oil-change guitar guy. Still, we'd rather experience the antics of a cardboard Guitar Hero. There's something to be said for advertising with character, isn't there? Advertising with legs?
The Missoula City Council considers sign-walkers and other potential changes to display rules in June. We say: Keep an eye on the billboards, and let a hundred sandwich boards bloom.