St. Petersburg billboards battle over whether bigger is better

You may have seen the phallic-humored billboards on Interstate 275. Here’s the deal.
Morgan & Morgan's "Size Matters" billboard, left, seen along U.S. 19. It's identical to one placed along Interstate 275 a few miles down the highway from the Berlin Law Firm's "BETTER IS BETTER" ad, right.
Morgan & Morgan's "Size Matters" billboard, left, seen along U.S. 19. It's identical to one placed along Interstate 275 a few miles down the highway from the Berlin Law Firm's "BETTER IS BETTER" ad, right. [ CHRIS URSO, BOYZELL HOSEY | Chris Urso and Boyzell Hosey | Times ]
Published Oct. 7, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — A pressing question has emerged for drivers heading north on Interstate 275:

Does size matter?

We know what you’re thinking, and no, this isn’t about that, not directly at least. Two Florida injury law firms have taken to billboards to spar over whether the size of a practice impacts the quality of representation, creating an advertising smackdown with a bizarre but not unprecedented phallic twist.

Northbound drivers will first see a sign for the Berlin Law Firm, a workers’ compensation practice. The billboard sits on the east side of the interstate near Ninth Avenue N in St. Petersburg, bearing the message, “Bigger isn’t Better. BETTER IS BETTER.”

A little weird on its own, right? But it all makes sense about 3 miles up the road. Rising from the west side of the highway at about 50th Avenue N is a message from the Orlando personal injury firm Morgan & Morgan: “Size Matters.” That ad appears to have gone up first and is part of a broader campaign with billboards plastered all over Tampa Bay and beyond.

First off, everyone involved would like you to know that they are definitely not peddling penis jokes.

“The ‘Size Matters’ campaign is centered solely on Morgan & Morgan being ‘America’s Largest Injury Law Firm,’” the firm’s founder, John Morgan, said in a statement through a spokesperson when asked how the campaign came about and whether it was intended to be phallic innuendo.

John Morgan, head of Morgan & Morgan, stands for a portrait in his offices in downtown Orlando. WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times
John Morgan, head of Morgan & Morgan, stands for a portrait in his offices in downtown Orlando. WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

“The phallic reference is theirs. It’s not ours,” Berlin founder Stephen Berlin said in an interview. “We’re above that.”

Berlin at first, in a very lawyerly move, wouldn’t confirm or deny whether his billboard was in response to Morgan & Morgan’s. But the trick with lawyers is to keep them talking.

“My initial thought was, ‘That’s just a lousy message,’” he said of “Size Matters.” “It was an opportunity, it looked like.”

The way Berlin sees it, when someone is hurt on the job, they’d benefit more from personalized attention. His practice is made up of five attorneys and the office is in Sarasota, although he said he’s planning to open a Tampa office by the end of the year. His firm specializes solely in workers’ compensation. “Better is better” was a way to differentiate his practice by quality, he said.

Morgan & Morgan has more than 700 attorneys in offices across 49 states practicing law in many more areas beyond workers’ compensation, according to its website. The size better positions the firm to take on national insurance companies with lots of resources, the website says, but it maintains a “family-style approach to dealing with clients and always seeing the individual behind the claim.”

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Related: John Morgan 'vandalized' Morgan & Morgan billboards in search of a 'purple cow'

“We have never heard of Mr. Berlin or his firm,” Morgan said in the statement. “His website indicates he’s a worker’s compensation lawyer. Go to our website and review all of our verdicts and results, and then decide if size matters. There is one reason almost three million people call us for representation every year: we win big — a lot. We wish this fellow the best of luck with his practice.”

A possible moderator in this debate is the Florida Bar, which has rules for what lawyers can and can’t say in advertisements, mainly that they can’t mislead or lie to consumers. In many cases, lawyers are supposed to file advertisements to the Bar for review. The Bar will then determine if the ad complies with its ethics rules.

A noncompliant ad can still be disseminated; the Bar evaluation serves as a warning of sorts that a lawyer could face discipline if they choose to move forward with a noncompliant ad, but only if someone complains, which triggers a separate disciplinary process.

When Morgan & Morgan submitted its billboard idea in February, the agency found that the “Size Matters” language is prohibited “unless the comparison of services can be objectively verified.”

“The Bar has not independently verified ... whether size of the law firm does in fact matter,” spokesperson Leslie Smith said, adding that the Berlin firm didn’t submit its billboard for review.

What the Bar’s process doesn’t address are, as Smith put it, “matters of taste.”

But sexual innuendo has a long history in advertising, said Jacqueline Johnson Lambiase, a strategic communication professor at Texas Christian University who has researched sex in advertising for 30 years.

It can turn off certain viewers, particularly women, she said, who have from the start of the industry been presented as decorative objects in advertising. Decades ago, it was a woman depicted in the kitchen, excited about a cleaning product. Then over the years it grew more sexual, she said. Think the 1980 Calvin Klein jeans ad, featuring a teenage Brooke Shields saying, “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

Neither of the law firm billboards is that explicit, but the genre comes with that baggage, Lambiase said. She was less critical of Berlin’s ad, which did “what a good competitor would do, which is knock them (Morgan & Morgan) down a peg” in a clever way, she said.

But with “Size Matters,” she said, it’s innuendo whether Morgan admits it or not. It’s up to the consumer to interpret an ad, and the phallic connotation in those words is universal.

“We all know exactly what they mean,” she said.

Plus, it’s in a shared public space, as opposed to, say, between the covers of a magazine to be consumed in private. Public ads should be held to a higher standard, she said. (A spokesperson for Morgan did not return multiple follow-up requests for comment on Lambiase’s analysis.)

“That kind of talk, innuendo or joking is a part of macho culture,” Lambiase said, “and then you’re connecting it to a law firm — a profession in which we know that kind of culture has thrived for a very long time — and then we’re one step away from the locker room.”