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Coastal cities woo sponsors: Make our beach your sandwich board

At a time when government officials from San Diego to Santa Cruz are eager to tap much-needed revenue by considering logos on almost everything, the sluggish economy has taken the sparkle out of the seashore.

January 15, 2012|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
  • An Arrowhead logo is posted near a pathway in Redondo Beach. It's free advertising for the water bottler, which stopped paying Los Angeles County for the privilege in 2008.
An Arrowhead logo is posted near a pathway in Redondo Beach. It's free… (Christina House, For The…)

This place used to sell itself.

The sun-kissed coastline, the glassy waves and the tens of millions of visitors who descended onto the spacious sand like clockwork. They were the magical ingredients that beach cities in California could bank on to bring in a steady stream of corporate dollars.

For exclusive rights to put company logos on lifeguard towers, trash cans, warning signs, vending machines and volleyball nets up and down the Los Angeles County coast, the bidding would start at $700,000.

But every wave must crash.

Precisely when government officials from San Diego to Santa Cruz are most eager to tap some much-needed revenue by considering logos on almost anything — even ads imprinted onto the sand itself — the still-lumbering economy has taken the sparkle right out of the seashore.

Now, in an effort to turn the tide, the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors is pitching the public seashore as "your blank canvas" and has told prospective sponsors that the beaches "present a unique, uncluttered platform for your brand's outdoor messaging."

County employees have researched electronic beach advertising and considered such moneymakers as automated sunscreen application machines with DVDs that play commercials. They have approached cellphone carriers and surf retailers, contemplated oil company ads on trash barrels and courted big-time soft drink firms such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, according to emails and records reviewed by The Times.

The beach, however, is a tough sell these days. Companies are unwilling to pay top dollar to display their logos on the sand, or their proposals are so over the top that government officials worry that the result would be more than the public is willing to stomach.

One unidentified "eco-conscious fashion retailer" asked permission last year to attach a device to a beach-cleaning vehicle to stamp its logo next to an anti-littering message in the sand at Will Rogers, Zuma and Venice beaches. And a drug and alcohol recovery foundation suggested a one-day beach publicity stunt: scattering on the sand in Santa Monica and Venice small, flat rocks inscribed with messages like "Have you hit rock bottom?" and contact information underneath.

With rules against especially large displays and content that includes sex or alcohol, county staffers have had to shoot down a slew of proposals, including the Jack Daniels logo and the ad for the television series "The L Word" that showed a group of naked women covered by strategically placed foliage. And of course, anything with sharks is a nonstarter.

The fact that most of the extreme ideas died a quick death shows the restraint state and local agencies have had to use in deciding how much commercialism to allow on the beach, even when the extra cash could help pay for basics such as lifeguards, trash collection and restroom maintenance.

"For the most part, cities are saying, 'We can commercially exploit our public domain,' and they want to make it available to marketers," said Miro Copic, a professor of marketing at San Diego State University. "But it's a fine line that they're trying to balance: to have the opportunity to generate revenue without selling every inch of the beach."

Not that they haven't tried.

Over the summer, San Diego sent letters to dozens of companies and advertising agencies seeking sponsors for Mission Beach, hoping they would pony up six figures to place small logos on lifeguard stations, towers, trash bins and benches for nearly 4 million visitors to see. The response was so underwhelming the city stopped pursuing the idea, said Natasha Collura, its director of strategic partnerships.

California State Parks in 2010 considered a $15-million agreement to build a Coca-Cola "Eco Beach" in Southern California with solar-powered vending machines, electricity-generating windmills and sun shades in the shape of Coke logos, records show. The idea never panned out.

A deal to make Dr Pepper Snapple Group the exclusive vendor in L.A. County and place hundreds of company logos at beaches fizzled in 2010 after the beverage giant's offer — $400,000 a year for three years — fell short of the mark. Countywide sponsorship deals have traditionally gone for a minimum of nearly twice that.

"I just felt that we were going to sell ourselves short, so I said no," said L.A. County Director of Beaches and Harbors Santos Kreimann. "Their position was, 'You don't have anyone else knocking the door down,' and I said, 'We'll wait.' "

The signs of the distress are in plain view.

Hundreds of signs at beaches across L.A. County still showcase red Arrowhead logos — free advertising for the water bottler, which stopped paying for the privilege in 2008.

In Huntington Beach, a 10-year, $300,000-a-year deal declaring Coca-Cola the city's soft drink expired the same year, and officials have been searching for another drink sponsor ever since.

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