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COLUMN ONE

The fine art of making a point

`Human directionals' -- those guys spinning advertising arrows -- can cost $60 an hour. Some of their best moves are filed in the patent office.

May 01, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

JEREMY White was holding a sign advertising $5 pizza deals at Little Caesars in North Hollywood when two young men stopped their white pickup truck.

After noticing his strong arms and athletic frame, they made him an instant offer. "We can pay you $10 an hour. Give us a call," White recalled the men saying.

A few days later, the 20-year-old met them at a North Hollywood park where coaches with clipboards barked at dozens of teenagers doing push-ups, part of a regimen preparing them to spin arrow-shaped signs for tanning salons and new homes. Four days later, White quit his Little Caesars gig to join the men's company, Aarrow Advertising of San Diego.

The payoff was immediate: $10 an hour, almost double his previous wages. During his second day on the job, a passerby was so impressed with his spinning that she gave him a $250 Croton watch. Within a month, he got a raise to $15 an hour. "I don't like to toot my own horn, but I'm one of the best out there," White said.

White is part of the competitive world of "human directionals," an industry term for people who twirl signs outside restaurants, barbershops and new real estate subdivisions.

Street corner advertising on human billboards has existed for centuries, but Southern California -- where the weather allows sign spinners to work year-round -- has endowed the job with style.

Local spinners have cooked up hundreds of moves. There's the Helicopter, in which a spinner does a backbend on one hand while spinning a sign above his head. In the Blender, a spinner twirls the sign behind his back. Spanking the Horse gets the most attention. The spinner puts the sign between his legs, slaps his own behind and giddy-ups.

Thanks to growing demand, the business has turned cutthroat. There's a frenzy of talent poaching. Spinners battle one another for plum assignments and the promise of wage hikes. Some of the more prominent compete for bragging rights by posting videos on YouTube and Google Video, complete with trash talking. One YouTube comment reads, "i don't know if you stole my tricks or i just do them better."

SPECIAL spinning moves are guarded fiercely.

Aarrow keeps dozens of moves in a "trick-tionary," which only a handful of people have seen, said co-founder Mike Kenny. The company records spinners' movements and sends them in batches to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "We have to take our intellectual property pretty seriously," he said.

Aarrow requires its 400 employees to attend monthly boot camps, where their skills are judged and physical fitness tested over three hours.

"It's competitive," said Randy Jenks, 20, an Aarrow "spin-structor." Afterward, he ran up a tree and bounded off with a back flip to pump up his students.

Aarrow charges clients $60 an hour -- double the industry standard -- for the services of its most skillful employees.

But Jenks, a kingpin in the industry, commands up to $70 an hour. Rapper Snoop Dogg flew him to Atlanta to spin a sign advertising his new album at the American Music Awards. Two years ago, Jenks won Aarrow's annual nationwide competition pitting the best spinners against one another. His protege, who happens to be his brother-in-law, won last year. Jenks was barred from entering because of his status as a spinning god.

The outdoor advertising industry still does not recognize sign spinning as a bona fide way of reaching consumers, much less an art form. It regards spinning as a form of guerrilla marketing that commercializes public space. Some municipalities are even beginning to make sign spinners into outlaws. Riverside, Poway and El Cajon are among the cities that recently banned the practice.

"They can distract people and cause accidents," said Jim Griffin, director of community development in El Cajon. Some sidewalk sign holders try to spin when no one is looking, so Griffin hired weekend staff to catch and ticket them.

It takes a discerning eye to know when to lay down the law, he said. "If a sign is moving, they're spinning. If their leg goes to sleep and they're jumping up and down, they're not."

But one person's crime is another's livelihood. Almost anyone can qualify for the job with most of the firms. Although some bring along an iPod or a cooler with drinks, the basic requirement is patience, lots of it. "If you're able to stand in a closet for six hours, you can do this job," said Jeff Triesch, a supervisor with MJAD Directionals, a San Diego company.

IT'S not easy money. Sign holders sometimes swelter in 110-degree weather and must master the physical challenges of throwing and catching a 6-pound plastic arrow. Some recount being pelted with pennies, eggs and insults from car windows.

Standing at the corner of West Alameda and North Pass avenues in Burbank, MJAD spinner Elliott Forte waved a sign advertising new apartments in Burbank. He cringed as a Vons truck made a tight right turn, inching perilously close. "Someone could lose control and run right into me," he said.

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