Maurice Germany, Westshore Pizza's standout sign holder, dances to Janet Jackson. The wavers dressed as the Statue of Liberty in front of Liberty Tax Service offices are inspired by a training video that teaches them to offer a peace sign to teenagers and a tip of the crown to senior citizens. Charles Davidson mostly just waves, often to people who wave back because they've come to know each other in a strange, familiar way.
"If people are having a bad day I just like to wave and smile and maybe make them smile, too," said Davidson on a recent afternoon as he stood with a sign advertising MIT Computers in front of the computer repair store at 3043 Fourth St. N.
Davidson's goal may be to cheer up motorists but MIT Computers' goal is to get those motorists to remember MIT's name the next time their computer crashes.
While many businesses are navigating the next wave of advertising with social networking, Tweeting and tags that upload videos to cell phones, it seems a growing number of businesses are going back to advertising basics: moving signs.
In 19th century London, "human billboards" became popular when advertising posters were subject to a tax and there was a shortage of wall space. Charles Dickens described sandwich signs and those who wore them as "a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board." Humans with signs, it seems, will always have a place in the ad world.
"The problem that people are facing is how do they promote their business when times are down," said Ken Anderson, a consultant with Compass Banner and Signs on Haines Road in St. Petersburg. "It has become increasingly attractive to pay someone $7 an hour to stand in front of their store on multiple days and during rush hour."
Compass has seen an increase in requests for the lightweight signs, Anderson said.
"Most days it's more than worth the money," said Bryan Solomon, manager of Westshore Pizza at 3187 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg. He started paying people to wave signs in front of his store, at Rays games and downtown about six months ago and has seen an increase in sales. "When they dance it gets the cars' attention. We've had people waving signs on the corner at the McDonald's drive-through and (drivers) have left McDonald's to go get a pizza from us."
Solomon usually has three sign holders working three-hour shifts nightly. He pays them $8 to $10 an hour.
"If they're good, they can make more than the people working in the store. I have one guy who's making $10 an hour, he listens to Janet Jackson and never stops dancing," Solomon said. "I tell them, 'Don't have inhibitions. Dance. Draw attention to yourself.' "
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Liberty Tax Service will hire thousands of wavers and sign holders to attract attention to the Virginia-based company's 4,000 tax preparation offices in the United States and Canada.
"About the first weekend in January we have auditions. They bring their own music and we give them a costume to wear. They show us what they've got," said Martha O'Gorman, Liberty spokeswoman. Once hired, the men and women who earned the right to don the sea green costume watch a video to learn different ways to make eye contact with drivers and the most effective way to wave to different demographics.
Last year the number of applicants for this short-term employment increased dramatically, she said.
Sign holding invites boredom and sunburn but Davidson, who often does the job for 34 hours a week, is grateful for the opportunity. He is in a work-release program that allows him to work and save money during the remainder of his sentence.
"I thank God for this job every day," he said, while wearing a tan cowboy hat to shield his face from the sun. "To be in work-release you have to have good behavior all through your sentence. Instead of getting out of prison with $100, we get the opportunity to make a couple thousand dollars."
With that money in the bank, Davidson plans to be able to pay car insurance and find steady employment when his sentence is over.
Inmates, though no sex offenders, who have committed lower-level crimes are eligible for work according to Gretl Plessinger, Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman. Many work for family or friends, in the restaurant industry or performing manual labor.
"I think (sign waving) is a relatively new phenomenon so it's a new job opportunity," Plessinger said.
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Beyond the increase in sign holders, the true phenomenon is a skill called sign spinning that's a cross between baton twirling and extreme sports. Across the country, these trained artists spin signs that advertise everything from Dunkin' Donuts to BlueCross BlueShield around their back, on a single finger and high in the air. Some can throw a sign above their head, pounce into a handstand and catch it with their feet. A barrage of YouTube videos of sign spinners would make the Harlem Globetrotters envious.
San Diego-based AArrow Advertising has 39 locations in and outside of the United States that offer teams of sign spinners who can design a custom advertising program for small to large businesses. There are three AArrow Advertising offices in Florida but the sign spinners are willing to travel anywhere.
Anywhere that is, except places like Seminole, which banned portable signs, sandwich signs and signs that move, twirl or swing in January.
"Those are distractions," said Mark Ely, Seminole's community development director, adding that Seminole's updated sign ordinance is very strict and cutting edge.
St. Petersburg's sign ordinance states that signs held by the hand of a person and not attached to any pole or object are exempt from any regulation.
"It is amusing and it does get your attention," said Cedar Hames, president of Paradise Advertising and Marketing in St. Petersburg. While his firm is focusing more on social networking for its clients, he has seen a lot of signs out there lately. "Anything you can do to make your company stand out from the clutter is good."
Barbara McCarthy, co-owner of Sun Country Cleaners, has sign holders working off and on at the chain's 28 stores throughout Pinellas.
"Like any other business, we try anything to see what works," she said. "You can't just stay with the same old some old. It just makes life interesting."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.