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'Grim Sleeper' Billboards: Great PR or Mixed Messages?

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Lonnie Franklin, Jr., considered to be the "Grim Sleeper" serial killer, was arrested in the vicinity of a billboard erected to aid in his capture. Now the electronic billboards--updated to laud local law enforcement for their work on making the arrest--are caught in a crossfire of opinions about their role in the community.

"Councilman Bernard Parks, whose district includes the neighborhoods where the victims were killed, thinks the digital signs modernize the urban landscape," reports the LA Business Journal. Parks contacted Clear Channel Media in 2008 to help bring to the public's attention information about the subject. "Clear Channel contends that both advertisers and consumers like digital billboards because they are television - visual and timely."

But digital billboards aren't applauded by everyone, and have been in the cross-hairs of local debate for some time. Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight says of the "Grim Sleeper" billboards:

“It’s a very clever public relations effort. It puts people like us who are against digital billboards on the defensive. Who wants to be seen as saying the visual environment of the city is more important than catching a rapist?”
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Other terms Clear Channel uses to describe similar billboard campaigns are "immediacy" and "sense of connection," which can draw in the community, particularly in law enforcement or safety cases.

While Parks may be in favor of the billboards, his fellow Councilmembers and other high-profile city officials are not in agreement, such as "City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who want to limit digital billboards."

And what about the public, who may appreciate the utility of a billboard helping the LAPD solve a major case, but not one that is advertising a consumer product? Hathaway believes the success of the "Grim Sleeper" billboards leaves the public confused:

“What is the message for people whose backyards are intruded upon by these bright, constantly changing signs?” he asked. “That they should suck it up because that sign might someday help catch a murderer? I don’t think that’s a good way to approach a public policy decision.”