Human directionals’ of marketing test their skills in national competition
They’re a familiar site at many a busy intersection: the helicopter, the kick-flip, the Bruce Lee – all manner of swirling, twirling and spinning “tricks” to draw drivers’ attention to a new subdivision or an apartment complex offering free rent.
The mostly 20-somethings performing these fancy feats boast not just an oversized, arrow-shaped sign but also the athletic ability and endurance to toss it around for hours under an often-blazing Houston sun. Sign spinners, sometimes called “human directionals,” have become a regular marketing expense for furniture stores, sandwich shops, health clubs and other consumer businesses, but especially real estate.
“They are surprisingly effective,” said Mack Armstrong, senior managing director at apartment development and management firm Greystar. “They bring attention to properties that may be offset from a major thoroughfare.”
Some of the best of these sign spinners tested their skills last weekend at a competition in Las Vegas. The event, for employees of Aarrow Advertising, was the national company’s 10th annual battle of human billboards.
Ten people from Houston showed off their moves in the hope of taking the $5,000 first prize. Houston’s Ray Rivera finished third, behind spinners from the San Francisco area and Atlanta.
Another local contestant was 26-year-old Calvin White, who two years ago took home a trophy for trick of the year, which involved catching a sign between his legs while standing on his hands. He called it the Tarzan.
“I had to give a name to it and Tarzan was one of my favorite characters as a child,” said White, a little winded and just beginning to break a sweat after a demonstration before heading to Vegas.
Aarrow Advertising, headquartered in California, specializes in sign-spinning promotions and has franchises across the country. In the era of Facebook and Google, with targeted ads, internet clicks and social media strategies, sign spinning is admittedly retro. But it works. Rodney Berry, owner of a national marketing company with an office in Spring, said an effective sign spinner can boost foot traffic by up to 50 percent. Sign spinners are particularly effective in capturing impulse buyers in ways that other forms of advertising can’t.
“If you have a human directional moving and shaking, that really stands out,” Berry said.
Spinners bring a skateboarder’s or break dancer’s flair to a job that doesn’t always get much respect. Occasionally, an angry driver yells or throws up a middle-finger salute or a kid tosses a foreign object. Eric Mayo, 23, who has been spinning signs for three years, said he was once the target of a flying slushie.
Scrapes and bruises
The job has other downsides, starting with Houston’s steamy weather. A sudden gust of wind can mess up a move, and the price of a missed trick can be scrapes and bruises.
So why do they do it? For Colby Kelly, it beat cleaning cars and taking out the trash at a body shop.
Kelly said sign spinning is challenging, but also satisfying. He spends hours practicing, honing his tricks and techniques, and watching videos to pick up new ones. The rewards come when he’s on a street corner.
“Seeing it actually work. It’s priceless,” he said. “Just seeing people’s faces light up. It’s fun. That’s why I love what I do.”
With the apartment market already glutted, and as many as 12,000 new apartments expected to come on the market this years, sign spinners might get plenty of work. Armstrong, the Greystar executive, said he knows his firm gets results from human advertisements because the company surveys people who come through the doors of their apartment complexes. Prospective tenants routinely are asked what drew them to the property.
“We don’t stop with ‘I was driving by,’ ” Armstrong said. “Was it the landscaping? A sign spinner? We try to drill down to what it actually was that really led the prospect in. That’s how you learn and how we determine how to allocate our marketing dollars.”
Hiring sign spinners can be a considerable expense, depending on how many hours spinners are needed. In some cases, Armstrong estimates it can eat up at least a quarter of a property’s marketing budget.
Aarrow provides training and starts spinners off at $10 an hour – $12 if they have a car. They get raises each quarter based on their performance, plus the occasional tip, which can run from a high-five to a bottle of Gatorade to a $100 bill, sign spinners said. White pulled in $26,000 last year working 30 hours a week on average.
The business sells franchises and there are dozens of locations around the world. The Houston operation is owned by Interactive Outdoor Media Solutions.
Colby Kelly shows his devotion to AArrow Sign Spinners with a tattoo on his leg at the Danny Jackson Family Bark Park, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Houston. The Houston spinners are on their way to the 2017 AArrow Sign Spinners World Championship in Las Vegas this weekend. ( Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle )
At the end of last year, the Houston market had 60 employees and it hit $1 million in revenue with 35,000 hours of spinning, said Jonathon Curry, a spinner-turned-manager for the local Aarrow franchise. This year the goal is to sell 50,000 spinning hours and generate $1.5 million to $1.7 million in revenues, he said.
Best use of money?
Betsy Gelb, a marketing professor at the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business, said she generally gets a kick out of seeing the spinner that’s usually out on a busy corner near her house, but she’s not so sure its the best way to spend advertising dollars. Even though she is often enthralled by the spinner’s moves, she noted, sometimes she can’t read the sign – certainly not an effective way to get a message across.
“This could have happened in 1900,” said Gelb. “You just need some muscles and a sign.”