‘Human directionals’ put a different spin on advertising

Fives days a week, Dave Workman, 45, dresses up in a Statue of Liberty costume with an oversized head and walks out to where Harmony Road and Wheaton Drive intersect. Once there, he finds the most visible spot he can and proceeds to dance, twirl and shake for four hours straight, regardless of whether it’s 5 degrees or 105.

And if you’ve been around him for more than five minutes, you know he’s a man that loves his job.

Workman is a sign-spinner for Liberty Tax Service just off Harmony Road in Fort Collins. He’s been spinning 25 hours a week for five years, and has become so good at grabbing drivers’ attention that about the only way someone heading down Harmony could miss him is by closing their eyes.

Workman is one of many sign-spinners, sometimes called human directionals, that have popped up over recent years across Northern Colorado and elsewhere. Relying on oversized signs promoting a business, they plant themselves on busy streets, waving, spinning and dancing their way into a driver’s line of sight.

And while it may appear to be a last-straw or bottom-of-the-barrel advertising gimmick, it’s actually a tried-and-true marketing strategy for many companies.

Workman uses his 5-foot long “Get $50 Now” sign with the skill and precision of a baton twirler. He has mastered more than a 100 “moves,” from tosses to spins, and does them all while attempting to keep the arrow pointing toward the otherwise discreet Liberty Tax office, which lies just out of sight from one of the city’s most-traveled roads.

Fort Collins city code includes no regulations on sign spinners – who are covered under free speech protections – as long as they’re not impeding a vehicle or pedestrian and not harming anyone. However, there are a multitude of regulations regarding permanent signs. So for storefronts off the beaten path, sign-spinning is the mother of invention.

Dan Pourbiax, the Liberty franchise owner, started hiring spinners because it is “part of the Liberty system.” But now that he has utilized them for 11 years, he’s a sign-spinner missionary.

“It’s the No. 1 reason why people say they come in,” he said.

While it may look simple, it can take a significant amount of training and practice to really excel, according to Pourbaix. This is one of the reasons he hosts a “signers boot camp,” an event where trainers from the corporate office come to the Fort Collins location and coach best practices in spinning. They’ve even put together a training video that features an expert spinner who’s mastered more than 200 moves.

The training seems to work. Pourbiax said that the Liberty locations that employ more animated spinners will show “a dramatic difference in the numbers” from the ones that don’t.

John Lambert, an assistant manger at Recycled Cycles in Fort Collins, said that its spinners are undoubtedly effective. He can tell because the company will promote specials or deals on the sign alone, and oftentimes have people come in for that product in particular. He also notices a difference in sales on a regular basis when a spinner is out.

The bike shop’s spinners work eight-hour days at $9.25 an hour, and Lambert will often offer additional small perks and bonuses for getting people into the shop. He considers it a small price to pay for effective advertising.

“Most people notice him (the spinner) and are ecstatic about it,” he said. “It’s just a reminder to people that they need to stop by.”

Marketing experts agree that sign-spinning can be an effective method of reaching prospective customers, if done right.

Ken Manning, a professor of marketing at CSU, said in an email that, as with any form of marketing, it’s necessary to get the audience’s attention. With the increased competition for consumers’ attention, businesses have been forced to develop unique ways for standing out if they want to have an effective advertising campaign. Sign-spinners are still relatively novel, and therefore are still able to capture interest.

“Basically we will pay attention to most anything that is unusual,” said Manning.

But not all attention is a good thing. Laurie Macomber, CEO of Fort Collins-based Blue Skies Marketing, warns of getting the wrong kind of attention. If a spinner is dancing inappropriately or promoting an attitude contrary to one that the company wants to reflect, it could do more harm than good for a business’ reputation.

Steve Pietrafeso of Top Dollar Gold off Harmony in Fort Collins said that the company encourages spinners to act and dress like a professional.

“She (the spinner) doesn’t do any of that jumping up and down or dancing or any of the freaky things,” he said.

Top Dollar’s spinner, Amber Smith, 19, said that she likes the job. She passes the time by listening to rap and tries to “always be smiling.” She doesn’t mind the heat of the summer but on the really cold days, she asks to work inside.

For Workman, the spinner for Liberty, the benefits from his work go way beyond a paycheck. When he started, Workman said he was shy and afraid to do anything beyond holding the sign and waving. Since then, he’s grown into the role, and stopped worrying about what people think and become more confident in himself – a trait that he believes has carried into his personal life.

“You’ve got to be on your best behavior when you’re out there because you’ve got to make the company look good, so you’re constantly smiling and waving,” he said. “And when I leave, I just keeping smiling. I can’t help it anymore.”

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