Sticker Shock
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Sticker Shock

Photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

This may sound crazy, but pasting thousands of ads for bargain divorce services all over hydro poles and the backs of road signs is illegal. You’d never know it, because these cheap-looking stickers seem to propagate throughout the GTA like wet Mogwais. Even worse, the fact that their contact information and provenance are so clearly displayed shows how incompetent the city is at enforcing its postering bylaw—it’s not like we can’t tell who’s responsible, after all.
We’re not talking about community event notices or lost pets (which are permitted); these are the cheap, ubiquitous commercial placards advertising painters, duct cleaning services, moving companies, debt counselling, or even the sign manufacturing companies themselves. They’re often affixed, out of reach and very permanently, on the backs of public street signs, but can also be found in less enduring configurations, strapped to utility poles at major intersections or hammered indiscriminately into grass medians and private lawns.

Because of such a wide range of applications, the signage bylaw can get pretty complicated [PDF], with the challenge being to maintain a balance between aesthetics, the rights of advertisers, community notification, and the freedom of expression. What’s not up for contention, however, is the legal permissibility of these omnipresent eyesores.
We asked the city’s Municipal Licensing & Standards Division what the penalty was for postering, and it basically boils down to this: the sign might get removed during periodic cleaning or maintenance. And that’s pretty much it.

Left photo by jasonainsworth75 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool; right photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

Technically, there is a $100-per-sign removal fee permitted in the municipal code [PDF], but the resources don’t exist to properly enforce that penalty (even though the city reserves the right to add it to the offending organization’s municipal taxes and despite the organization’s phone number being printed in enormous type on every sign). While we’ve seen some signs remain in place for years, we’ve also seen city staff scraping others off—but not keeping track of how many get removed or to which entity they belong.
City Hall couldn’t tell us how many staff members are allocated to this task or how much it costs the city per year, but a representative mentioned that the removal of posters on private property (mailboxes, telephone utility panels, garbage cans, bus shelters) is the responsibility of the owners, who are empowered to recover their own cleaning expenses. Astral Media, for example, often removes rogue advertising pasteups within twenty-four hours so that they don’t cover up the advertising someone actually paid for. Neighbourhood BIAs hire crews to scrape the loathsome signage from sight, only to see it replaced by morning.
Combating aesthetic blight is low on the funding scale and priority list for City Hall, so—once again—the onus falls on fed-up citizens. The Toronto Advertising Hall of Shame maintains an index of the city’s worst sign polluters, currently naming a whopping 207 offenders, with dishonourable mentions to 310-DUMP and Alpine Roofing. City Asphalt Sealing got the site’s top dishonour of being voted the worst street spammer in TAHS’s 2008 SPAMMY awards (online voting for the 2009 version begins on September 1). S & Sons Moving, another top offender, even has replacement phone number stickers to slap over any original ads that have had the number obfuscated by spray paint or a chisel.
The anonymous proprietor of the TAHS, known by the moniker Ville Propre de Toronto, is so passionate about ridding the city of “litter on a stick” that free wire snips are being given out to anyone who volunteers for the cause. Attempts are made to identify individuals with the signs, but it’s a moving target, as a single entity is often listed under multiple names and phone numbers. S & Sons Moving, for example, also disguises itself as Thrifty Moving or just by phone number only, according to “Ville.”

Photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

Feedback on the TAHS site from the typo-prone, pro-signage crowd is remarkably delusional: “Your eyesore junk web-site does not represent Canadians and Torontonians in particular…you know, just a piece of thought, at fist people did not like Pablo Picasso too,” reads one from Vectus Moving.
“There is no law which stats that we as a company can not advertise. We can see that you hate Canada and Toronto in particular because YOU are against its economy,” the Vectus rep continues. “Why do YOU think you have health care, police, firefighters, and other free services?”
“If anything these people spend more to overcompensate for assholes like yourself who remove their signs,” huffs “Chris Testa,” another defender. “Many of these signs come from small businesses cutting their teeth and need every advantage possible to survive amongst huge corporations. To add to their troubles assholes like you are trying to drag their names through the mud in your little .org.”
There is a great irony in that so many of these bottom-feeding litterbugs are advertising junk-removal services, but they work in the same way that email spam does: since bylaw enforcement is woefully lax, all it takes is a few people to bite and the whole exercise is worth it. And we realize that the TAHS site is mainly a means of increasing awareness, but we need not point out the futility of awarding shame awards to companies that are proudly insolent.
Ridding Toronto of this trash signage seems like a trifling hope—at least for now. Still, it’s hard to believe that there are people out there looking to consolidate their debt or dissolve their marriage who willingly choose to patronize these trashy entities, and that’s the saddest part of all.