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Drive-By Words of Wisdom

Some see optimism and humor in those business signs offering hopeful messages; others say they're just another way to make us buy.

May 09, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's Friday afternoon, and like all Friday afternoons, you're spending this one stuck in traffic on the 405, cursing your boss, your HMO, the whole darn system. Then these words hit you with the force of a semitruck: "Hot heads and cold (Heart) 's never solve anything."

The words appear on a giant electronic sign looming over the freeway in Carson, alternating with ads for new Fords and interest rates. You react one of two ways: You get the warm fuzzies and feel better right away, or feel the incipient irritability of emotional sugar shock.

Don Kott Auto Center, the company behind the sign, is one ofmany local commercial enterprises peddling feel-good messages and snappy adages in prime advertising space. It's an artifact of relentless American optimism, the next step along the happy-face-button, have-a-nice-day continuum.

But do we really want to be cheered up by purveyors of consumer products?

"I think you get more boost out of a Hallmark greeting card because at least you know who it's from," said Wendy Kaminer, author of "Sleeping With Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism & Perils of Piety" (Pantheon, 1999). "I'm generally skeptical when commercial enterprises do something for noncommercial reasons."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 12, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Sign creator-- A story Tuesday about signs with inspirational messages omitted the name of Milton Johnson, who is responsible for the sign at Terry Sash & Door.

Still, it's hard to doubt the goodwill and sincerity of Margaret Kott, president and co-owner of Don Kott Auto Center. For the past 11 years, she's come up with hundreds of inspirational messages for the car lot's two computerized signs, which change several times a week. Her favorite sources are Shakespeare, the Beatles--she loves the Beatles--the Bible, the Torah and newspapers.

"I'm the world's biggest plagiarist," she confessed. Like a seasoned reporter, she carries a note pad wherever she goes. "I tell people, 'Be careful what you say, because your words may be up in lights.' "

Initially, Kott admitted, not everyone was crazy about the idea. "The sales force thought, 'What are you doing? You're taking our sales space!' " But she said they're believers now. And Kott has dozens of testimonials from people who have found solace, or more, from her drive-by aphorisms.

"I got a call from a woman who was going home to kill herself," said Kott. "My reader board said something like, 'Never give up.' She called and said, 'That stopped me.' "

Not everyone's feedback is positive: "Long, long ago, a woman was upset. The board said, 'Men build houses, women build homes.' She was an architect."

Kott, a self-confessed optimist and former schoolteacher, is not easily discouraged. "I care very much about people," she said. "I feel like we can do this tiny little thing for people, help someone who's hurting, inspire people not to be down in the dumps, not to give up on yourself. It's like being with your mother all the time."

Or, in the case of Santa Ana's Orco Tool, whose sign is visible from the 55 Freeway in Santa Ana, with your father. Manager Rod Borkowski chooses aphorisms for his sign from books such as "1,001 Quotes" and "Life's Little Instruction Book." Customers fax in suggestions as well. Recent bons mots include "There's no speed limit on the road to excellence" and "Live your life as an exclamation, not an explanation."

"It's the lowest risk advertising you can do," said University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz. "It's the equivalent of happy faces. Those nice people who do X. It's content-free and morality-free. At least an ad is honest. It says buy this. This is a more insidious kind of association. When there were just a few of these signs, it was an advertising innovation. But by being replicated, it's become really banal. Part of me finds that wasteful."

*

Terry Lumber in Tarzana plays fast and loose with the message on its Terry Sash & Door sign, employing product puns to bring a smile to passersby. Manager Mark Ernsberger comes up with 95% of the puns, which change twice a week. He admits to "a bunch that got us in trouble," including last year's "We carry more stain than Monica's dress."

"The feedback was 50-50 on that," said Ernsberger. "I was getting faxes and letters. It was like black licorice; either you love it or you hate it."

Ernsberger is upfront about using the sign as a marketing tool. "You see so many mundane signs around town," he said. "Our intent is to draw attention and get people chuckling. . . . I have a lot of employees who ride the bus, and the bus driver tells them, 'That was a great sign you had today.' "

Perhaps the best-known purveyors of inspiring messages are churches. Drivers passing Faith Tabernacle Assembly of God on Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles recently might have spotted, "Man uses duct tape to fix everything. God uses nails." Or, "This is a ch ch. What's missing? U R."

Pastor Mike Hinojosa claimed the sign "has brought distinction to the fellowship. We've even had people send $10 in the mail with a note that says, 'Love your sign. Here's something for the church.' "

While it's unlikely that commercial businesses will be receiving unsolicited charitable donations in the mail, their signs stir more than emotions.

As Pepperdine University marketing professor Charles Foujtik put it: "These feel-good messages can enhance the climate for purchase."

Which is, after all, the point.

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