In the land of hype, every man can be king, particularly if is crown is a huge Sunset Boulevard billboard touting his latest claim to the throne.
The royalty, of course, are today's rock and movie stars, who lend their visages to such towering mug shots. (The phrase is not used lightly - Ringo Starr's current billboard makes him look more like the Hillside Strangler than a pop star.)
Several dozen billboards dot the heart of Sunset Boulevard, known locally as "The Strip." All are dedicated to promoting a performer's new record or film. August's honorees include Ringo, Warren Beatty, the Rolling Stones and Cheap Trick.
This pop kitsch is a curiosity not because of the garish art work, carnival-like moving parts or neon debris, but because of their utter futility. Nobody - not even record company ad executives who shell out a minimum of $4,000 a month per board - thinks they work.
For all the good done by one of these 14-by-48-foot behemoths, you might as well slap Peter Frampton's curls on a bus bench. They are the ultimate Hollywood hustle - the hype for hype's sake.
"We don't really think we're selling albums," said Warner Brothers ad chief Shelly Cooper. "It's special attention, just another way to develop an artist's image.Everyone knows the money could be better spent in other directions."
Another ad director was more blunt. "They're what we call a stroke," he confided. "Big acts have big egos and he spend enormous amounts of money to keep them happy. It's easier to drive a manager or the group past a big billboard on the Strip than show them hundreds of magazine ads or record store posters. It makes a lasting impression."
Despite the signs' apparent super-flousness, competition for prime space is fierce. Many record labels sign yearly contracts with Foster and Kleiser, the leading billboard manufacturer, to reserve a special location along the Strip. Warner's slot is over a car lot at Sunset and Queens; Motown dominates the view across from Tower Records while Capitol regularly rents a board next to the Whiskey a Go Go.
Billboards do have an impact, but only within the record industry itself. That's why you'll never see a forest of Fleetwood Mac signs in the Loop. Billboards are like a racing form - only veteran music business handicappers can digest the specialized information.
These are signs in more than the literal sense.They announce which performer's career is on the upswing and signal, which movie will enjoy a major a push. The Eagles sold 9 million records. They had a billboard. Ian Dury sold 9,000 records. He's still waiting.
The billboards themselves reflect traditional marketing wisdom. Most dutifully reproduce a performer's album cover, sometimes adding a striking visual flourish (a Uriah Heep board boasted 3-D figures) or a tag announcing a local appearance.
At their best these looming slabs are an art director's dream, a symphony-sized canvas of color and design. One Ringo Starr sign looked like a Rube Goldberg device, complete with whirring appendages and and a revolving Viennese clock.
At their worst, the boards look like they would be more at home outside an X-rated Las Vegas motel.
Leading the list is a non-legendary Rod McKuen boondoggle that mysteriously displayed only the poet's torso, as if he had been decapitated by a low-flying plane. Another recent board featured an artist's conception of Randy Newman, which gave the songwriter the appearance of a wax museum dummy after a three-alarm fire.
As is often the case when hype is involved, the first victim is good taste.It's one thing to portray a nude woman on an album cover - another thing to parade a panoramic view of her breasts 40 feet above Sunset Strip.
Feminists defaced a Rolling Stones board that depicted a woman in a bondage pose, and the current Hustler magazine billboard is practically submerged in spray-painted anti-pornography slogans.
Billboard property owners can still enforce some minimum standards of taste. A billboard for a new album by Yes, featuring a band member's buttocks, had to be redesigned after several complaints. The art director's solution: a pair of madras shorts for the offending derriere.