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Kai Ryssdal: Here in Los Angeles last week, a guy got arrested for putting up a huge billboard on the side of an office building that he owns. The actual citation was for a bunch of safety and fire code violations. But the LA City Council says the real offense here is that enormous billboards aren't much more than urban eyesores, which is why they were banned last year. There is another school of thought, though -- those super-sized ads can be a cash cow.
From WLRN in Miami, Kenny Malone explains.
Kenny Malone: In downtown Miami, there's an eight-story building that looks like a giant, beige box.
It's a chiller plant that provides air conditioning for a lot of government buildings in Miami-Dade County.
Jerry Hall's with the county government. He agrees, it's pretty ugly.
Jerry Hall: There's very few windows, it's got a lot of water coming out of the sides of it, because it's got cooling towers.
Malone: What kind of architecture is this?
Hall: Mid-seventies industrial, with stucco finish.
The chiller plant overlooks a sprawling web of interstate ramps. So you're driving north, checking out the city...
Hall: Literally, this building pops up, and it's what you see for a good 15 seconds.
And now the county is cashing in on its 15 seconds of fame. The chiller plant is sporting a shiny new ad for the Apple iPad. And the county will bank a $220,000 rental fee, and 16 percent of the sign's profits.
Mike Freedman: The industry that we're in, there are many folks who don't necessarily love what we do.
Mike Freedman is CEO of Fuel Outdoor Advertising. They're the ones renting the side of the chiller factory. He says everyone wins with the Dade project. Advertisers get unique access, his company gets the contract and the county gets much needed non-tax revenue.
Freedman: It's actually the ultimate win-win-win situation.
Malone: Except the potential loser could be the people who don't want to have to look at a sign.
Freedman: Uh, that is where I would say to you, let's look at photograph prior to the advertising being placed there and let's look at the chiller facility today. Let's do the ultimate taste test, so to speak.
Malone: Excuse me guys! Excuse me! I'm doing a taste test, so to speak.
In my left hand, a "before" photo of the plain old chiller plant. In my right, a photo of the building sporting an iPad ad.
Malone: Which one do you prefer?
Man 1: Probably this one, the right one with the advertisement.
Man 2: The one on the right, because it has an iPad.
Woman 1: They wouldn't put the iPad on that building. I think that's the prison building.
Man 3: The advertisement gives us a sign there's a city there.
OK well, maybe people do prefer covering up an ugly 70s building, but what if it were a more notable landmark?
Brian Steele: These are historic structures. Many of these bridges are 80, 90, 100 years old.
Brian Steele is a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation. It oversees the famous downtown drawbridges spanning the Chicago River. The city faces a record $654 million budget gap. So it's trying something new: A pilot program will let corporations buy a spot on bridge towers during the holidays.
But they're not ads, Brian Steele insists.
Steele: There's no "20 percent off," there's no "Visit us for your holiday needs." It's simply a message related to the holidays and then the name of the sponsor.
Chicago estimates bridge sponsorship could be worth millions. So the city's already exploring other public spaces, like ads on the sides of government vehicles.
In Miami, I'm Kenny Malone for Marketplace.