Sign wavers attract business and controversy

The controversy over sign wavers in Elkhart is expected to continue as a city council member seeks compromise.
Posted on Dec. 9, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Names used for people who hold signs promoting a service or business are as numerous as the costumes they often wear.

Human billboards, human directionals, sign shakers, sign wavers, sign spinners, sign twirlers and sign dancers are just a few of the monikers attached to people who are willing to stand on road sides to help promote a business.

Regardless of the name, though, managers for two stores on Bristol Street who use the advertising strategy think it’s a highly effective advertising gimmick.

Jesus Corona, manager of Little Caesars Pizza in the Bristol Street Commons strip mall, estimates that a good chunk of their business — anywhere from 25 to 40 percent — can be attributed to sign wavers.

Proof of the success can be seen, he said, during lulls in the day.

“Sometimes when we are slow and we send somebody outside, people start coming in,” Corona said. “It’s good advertising,” Corona said.

Just to the east of the pizza store is Joe’s Gold, which also uses sign wavers.

Gerry Current, manager of the gold store, points to customer surveys that ask how they learned about the store. Numerous surveys attributed it to the sign waver.

Current said the sign wavers are especially good at helping establish a presence for a new store.

“It brings people in,” Current said.

Indeed, sign shaking has come a long way since it surfaced in the 19th Century when the devices were known as sandwich boards.

These days, the practice has morphed into a more fanciful version that includes some pretending to play guitar or wearing anything from gorilla suits to cowboy attire.

A store in Goshen uses a person sitting on a fake horse, but normally doesn’t even have a sign. In Mishawaka, a store on Grape Road has begun using a live horse as a prop for the sign waver.

But as the advertising niche has blossomed, so have debates over the safety of the workers and even the overall aesthetics.

Elkhart is one of latest communities across the nation to question if and how sign wavers should be regulated.

The problem is, officials are realizing their sign ordinances don’t directly address the concept of sign waving.

“It’s now an acceptable way of advertising,” said Elkhart City Council member Mary Olson. “We better look and see how we can best accommodate without putting anybody at risk.”

Olson is one of several council members who objected to an effort by mayor Dick Moore to prohibit the practice.

Olson said she’d like to see some type of compromise worked out.

The political dust-up over sign waving began last month when Moore tried to establish a ban by including a provision in an ordinance intended to prohibit stoplight fundraisers. Some council members objected to that. Eventually, the language was removed and the ordinance was passed.

Moore then countered Monday by saying city attorneys who researched the issue discovered language in the existing sign ordinance prohibits signs in the city right of way. That would cover most sign wavers who like to stand close to the road.

Moore says he worries that someone could be injured if a vehicle jumps the curb and questioned whether the city could be held liable if a sign waver is injured.

Moore said Monday the city would begin warning stores on Jan. 1 that the sign waving is prohibited and could begin enforcing the ban Feb. 1.

The mayor also noted that if sign wavers stay out of the right-of-way and remain on private property, he would find that acceptable.

Another concern — if sign wavers were to be banned — involves the impact on various nonprofit groups who use fundraisers such as car washes and often have teens standing along the road waving signs directed at motorists.

Moore said he thinks an exception should be made for those types of cases.

Olson thinks an exception for some groups would be unfair to others.

Corona, the pizza manager, said he was surprised to see the issue come up.

“We’ve been doing this for six years,” Corona said. “We’ve never had a problem.”

Corona said his employees share the task of sign waving and many of them like the work.

Current, the manager at Joe’s Gold, said that prior to being promoted, he worked as a sign waver when the company had a store along U.S. 33 in Dunlap. For more than a year, he dressed as a gorilla, chicken, Spider-Man and Santa while advertising for the store.

These days, the store employs Patrick Rasche, a man in his early 20s, to promote the business.

This week, Rasche was dressed as Santa and wore a rubber Grinch mask.

He said he likes the work and is worried about the potential ban that could begin Feb. 1.

“I don’t think it’s really fair,” Rasche said. “It could potentially put me out of a job. I love what I do out here. I like the environment and love just being in my own element.”


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