City lights are more than advertising

© Schellbach

”Downtown“ is where the lights are shining brighter.“You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares“, Petula Clark sings. The song from 1964 is more current than ever. Metropolitan areas live by their bright neon signs. The reunification brought new signage into East German city centers faster than you were able to repaint the old facades, but repeatedly there is also controversy about the signs.

Lawyers call the signs “advertising structures”. They are often the reason for lawsuits. Retailers and advertisers sue cities and communities. Example Bad Tölz: its administrative court decided in 2009 that optometrist Robert Emberger was not allowed to use a satined glass plate as his company sign for his store in the Marktstraße.

The court stated that a glass plate does not comply with advertising structure regulations. The presiding judge pointed to the historical significance of the building and concurred with the city’s line of argument.

This is not an isolated case. Especially in historic city centers, retail assumes a special responsibility towards the cityscape. On the one hand, retailers provide life to keep the shopping streets busy – and in doing so ensure municipal tax revenues. On the other hand, they should not become the center of attention too much. In many places, the argument already starts when old buildings are being remodeled. The ceiling heights and window sizes of landmarked buildings don’t meet the requirements for modern shopping. Whereas in the seventies large glass facades and gutting of buildings were still approved, today everybody is considerably more sensitive. Several retailers have also realized that they can set themselves apart from the uniformity of many pedestrian areas with their highly original stores.

Sign regulations have tradition

What is permitted and what isn’t has not just been something that has been regulated today. In many cities, guilds were in charge for centuries. They also determined which artisan was allowed to advertise and in what fashion. The old guild emblems that are mounted as vintage business signs and sign holders on the houses come from that time. Mario Döhring, Managing Director of werbeland, very much appreciates the old business signs. Even though his industry association makes its money with signs and inscriptions, he expresses in a EuroShop interview that he is glad that cities do not allow any uncontrolled growth.


© Schellbach

Vintage business signs or sign holders are a generic term for signs that are perpendicular to the “face” of the building. They are especially well noticed if the direction of passing pedestrians is at right angles to the facade, says Döhring. “Sign holders today are available from classic illuminated signage all the way to banner hanging tension systems“, he stresses. Self-luminous or illuminated – today a lot is possible. There is no clear trend.

Small signs – large signs

Storefront signs are not just a part of retail signage. Even if the odd retailer doesn’t like to hear this, the product choices of many retailers and brands have become so similar that the customer in the store oftentimes doesn’t even know in which store he/she is at the moment. That is why retailers started to show their logo on directory signs and displays. You should not overdo it of course, but the right place for a logo is on name badges of employees. Name badges with colorful logos that you can self-inscribe with the employee’s name have proven successful. Manufacturers offer perforated inserts that can be self imprinted at the store. In the second EuroShop interview on the signage focal topic, Angela Klimmek, Marketing Director at badgepoint, gives valuable tips for the selection and application of name badges.

The largest advertising structures are located in industrial parks. Long-range effect is particularly important next to freeways. Creativity is less important, says Mario Döhring. One relatively new development is large searchlights that advertise with beams high into the sky. This is not the only kind of “light pollution” critics bemoan. Astronomers use the terms to describe the fact that in cold, clear nights you can barely see any stars over cities due to all the lights.

Birds and insects also suffer from the light pollution. Retail is not just confronted with monument protection, but also by conservationists. Then there is environment protection and its criticism of using too much energy for illuminated advertising. The switch from fluorescent tubes to energy-saving LEDs doesn’t just serve cost reduction benefitting the owner, but also promotes a clean image. Admittedly, the layperson rarely sees which lamps are in the advertising structures.


© werbeland

Signs provide a sense of urban living

Las Vegas or an Oktoberfest could not be imagined without lights. A sense of urban living in “downtown“ depends on increasingly new ideas of advertising technicians. Nevertheless, less can be more, because politicians quickly overshoot the mark once the opposition starts to stir up emotions and demands stricter laws. The Bavarian state capital Munich shows that this doesn’t just pertain to local politicians. In 2010, there was a controversy about a rotating star on the high-rise building of the Mercedes plant. City lawyer Otto Gaßner kept telling the court that it has been a 30-year administrative practice to prohibit rooftop advertising, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports.

Mercedes lawyer Peter Gauweiler filed eight motions to take evidence, stating this claim to be false and arbitrary. The star remains on the rooftop.

In 1964, Petula Clark sang about the city lights. The current song by Unheilig is titled “Lichter der Stadt” (city lights). ”I take the time to look at the city lights. I feel so free here“ say the lyrics. City lights are more than advertising – they are a way of life. Retail offers a big stage.

René Schellbach,



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