Guerrilla marketing on bikes parked around Philly is legal, city says

A liquor company was using bicycles as advertising billboards.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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If you park your bike in such a way that it interferes with pedestrian traffic, you could be on the hook for a $15 ticket, according to Philadelphia code. Although the violation is rarely enforced, it applies whether you drop your bike off for 30 minutes or leave it there for a whole day.

If you lock your bike to a regular rack? You can leave it there indefinitely — without violating any laws. That’s true even when the two-wheeler is being used as a de facto billboard, city officials said.

The issue came up recently when people began noticing bicycles doused in branding for whiskey maker Naked Grouse on sidewalk racks across the city.

Chained to both stanchions of the inverted-U stands, these bikes weren’t waiting for riders, but were left sitting in place for days on end, flashing brand logos and taglines to anyone walking by.

A regular sweep for abandoned bicycles only happens twice a year, and before the Streets Department removes a deserted bike, it must be tagged with a notice for at least a week.

In this case, the situation didn’t have a chance to escalate that far. When advocates began grousing (ha) about the stunt on social media, noting that it effectively stole parking spots from actual cyclists, the liquor company sprung into action.

Naked Grouse quickly removed all 10 bikes — which it says have been floating around since they were used during the Philly Naked Bike Ride last summer — and issued a mea culpa.

“We apologize to the Philly bicycle community as it was not our intention to take up multiple bicycle parking spots and inconvenience Philadelphia cyclists,” Naked Grouse brand manager Chris Vogt said in an emailed statement. “As of [Thursday] all of our bicycles have been removed.”

If the whiskey folks hadn’t been responsive, however, detractors of the guerilla marketing campaign may not have had any recourse.

Philly’s Law Department is still evaluating whether bikes covered with branding are treated any differently than personal bicycles, per spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco. But after a review of statues, the city is “not aware of any laws that prohibit” what Naked Grouse did, she said — de facto billboard or not.

Outdoor advertising laws are relatively strict in Philadelphia, something that’s visually obvious when you walk through downtown and are greeted by elegant facades instead of commercials shouting from every blank wall.

Some of the stringency has been relaxed in recent years; a 2015 law now allows companies to pay $4,000 for a license to erect what’s referred to as an “Urban Experiential Display.”

Temporary printed displays like what was on the bicycles falls under a different category. Called “non-accessory” signage since it’s not directly related to a business location, it’s allowed in most areas without a permit. These signs do have to conform to various provisions: there can only be one per street, for example, and its total size must be smaller than six square feet (in residential areas) or 12 square feet (commercial).

As long as Naked Grouse followed those rules, the city appears to view the branded booze bikes as totally legal and totally cool.

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