This story appeared in the Bedford/ Pound Ridge Record Review newspaper on Friday August 17th 2007, and is reprinted here with permission.
Freedom of speech violation or just doing business?
By EVE MARX of the Bedford Record Review
Mark Stevens is ticked. The Pound Ridge resident and CEO of MSCO, a Rye Brook-based international management and marketing firm, took a hit earlier this year when an ad for Mr. Steven’s latest book, “YourMarketingSucks.com,” on a billboard in New Rochelle was abruptly removed. He said Clear Channel Outdoor, the company responsible for the billboard, never notified him they were taking it down.
The reason, a spokesperson for Clear Channel, Jennifer Gery, said, was, “Some officials complained.”
In addition to running a company, Mr. Stevens is the author of 20 books including “Sudden Death: The Rise and Fall of E.F. Hutton,” a Wall Street Journal best seller and Library Journal business book of the year. His enormously popular “Your Marketing Sucks,” published by Crown in 2003, is a perennial best seller in paperback and overseas. The “Your Marketing Sucks”billboard has been displayed in numerous markets around the U.S. including Manhattan, and two locations in New Rochelle.
“The billboard was up and we were getting a lot of response from it,” Mr. Stevens said last week. “It got people going to our Web site and generated a lot of Web site traffic to the MSCO Web site. Then one day I was in a conference room in my offices in Rye Brook and I got a call from a guy who demanded to speak to my assistant.”
Mr. Stevens said the man was “furious.”
“He said he was driving along and he saw the ‘Your Marketing Sucks’ billboard and he flew into a rage. He started screaming. He said he had his 5-year-old daughter in the car and that my billboard had ruined her life.”
Mr. Stevens said he never got the name of the man, who said he was a vice president of a division of Berkshire Hathaway, an Omaha, Nebraska based company whose chairman and CEO is Warren Buffett. “He said my billboard ruined his daughter’s life but his phone call basically ruined my day.”
Mr. Stevens said he tried explaining to the man that the word “suck” was not an obscenity.
The caller wouldn’t hear it.
“He demanded I rip the board down,” Mr. Stevens said. “He said that if I didn’t, he would bring the wrath of the entire Berkshire Hathaway empire down on me and my business. I told him I don’t take to threats kindly and I said goodbye.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Soon afterwards, without notice, Clear Channel tore the billboard down.
Mr. Stevens only became aware of this turn of events by accident when he took a drive to see his billboard and found it blank.
“I thought it was a mistake,” he said. He called Clear Channel and was told his message was down because of official complaints. Besides his grievance that its removal was in violation of his contractual agreement, Mr. Stevens feels his First Amendment rights have been violated. “Where do you draw the line?” he said. “It’s like taking every newspaper in the country and burning it because you don’t like the headline.”
Since then, Mr. Stevens has been interviewed by USA Today, Reuters, and numerous radio networks about the incident. What really ticked him off was that Clear Channel gave him no reimbursement, no apology and no explanation.
In similar situations across the nation, residents and lawmakers have been demanding signage deemed to be offensive be taken down. In some cases, the signs do not have to be removed, but must be set a certain distance from the highway. There may be other restrictions. For example, a billboard in Manhattan displaying bare bottoms with smiley faces never saw the light of day after a judge last July temporarily blocked its installation because the nearby Times Square Church objected. In 2001 the billboard industry added an anti-obscenity clause to its code of principles. The clause has been both vilified and applauded depending on who is doing the complaining.
“I feel completely angry,” Mr. Stevens said, although he said Clear Channel agreed to put up another billboard in another location with different text.
“They did not notify me which they are contractually obligated to do,” Mr. Stevens said. “It’s crazy, but there were two billboards in the same community that had the same message. One is still up and the other is down.”
Mr. Stevens said at one point he was planning to take Clear Channel to court, but then they gave him a free board. “There are other companies that do billboards,” Mr. Stevens said. “I could have gone to any one of them. My company has a major campaign and there hasn’t been a single problem anywhere else in the country except for New Rochelle.”
Mr. Stevens said there is nothing pornographic about the word “suck,” which he believes lies at the heart of the issue. “The word is not pejorative. There’s nothing pornographic or insulting to anyone except for marketers whose ideas don’t work.” He said he can’t be responsible for things that other people have a problem with. “There are people who have a problem with dogs who aren’t dressed,” he said. “There’s a whole movement against dogs not wearing clothes.” He also pointed out that a diet book called “Skinny Bitch” is now a hot best seller.
“Somebody at Clear Channel is clearly afraid of somebody in New Rochelle,” Mr. Stevens asserted. “I have no idea who called me that day on the phone. I feel like I’m on trial and I don’t even know who the accuser is.”
When contacted by The Record-Review, Jennifer Gery, the Clear Channel spokeswoman and an employee of Brainerd said that she was no longer commenting on the situation and that a Clear Channel executive would have to respond to any questions. So far there has been no response.
“I know political correctness has risen to tidal wave proportions,” Mr. Stevens said. “Still, ‘YourMarketing Sucks.com’ is not the worst thing anyone is going to hear or see all week.”
This story reprinted with the permission of the Bedford/ Pound Ridge Record Review.Email This Post