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Akst: They’re called ‘human directionals’

You have seen them on sidewalks, often near stores about to go out of business. They dance and sing and do antics.

They are the sign holders.

On a day-to-day basis, poverty in America doesn’t command as much attention as, say, Justin Bieber egging his neighbor’s house, but 2014 marks 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty.

That declaration of war (during Johnson’s State of the Union address) led indirectly to the establishment of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This week, experts from the university and elsewhere gathered in California to announce the findings of a national “report card” on poverty and inequality.

The report is unsurprising: The rich are getting richer, the very rich are getting richer beyond the scope of ordinary comprehension, most of us are stuck in the mud, and the poor continue to just barely hang on.

Similarly, the cure for poverty is unsurprising.

Timothy Smeeding, a UW professor and co-author of the national poverty report card, said, “The long-term solution to poverty is a steady job that pays high enough wages to move a family over the poverty line.”

Back to the sign holders. It could be those who stand/walk/wave/dance for hours in ridiculous costumes while making minimum wage, no benefits and in horrible conditions might genuinely like what they do and be inspired by the performances they give.

Regardless, since most of us have seen these folks, I thought it might be interesting to offer some data about the working conditions of a sign holder.

It was harder than I thought it would be to find good information on these folks, like for starters, what they are called.

In the advertising industry, they are known as “human directionals” or “human billboards.”

Media Nation, an advertising firm, describes its human directional service:

“When a real, living and breathing human being holds an arrow directing potential clients to a site, results ensue. Our trained Media Nation Outdoor employees athletically create motion with specially designed signs to attract attention and deliver a call to action. They are strategically positioned on the street corner, in front of the location or wherever foot traffic is desired.”

Here are a couple of other things I found out:

• The practice goes back to at least 19th century Europe. Then, as now, poor people hold signs.

• Overwhelmingly, sign holders are paid minimum wage ($7.25 an hour nationally; $8.25 an hour in Illinois). However, some reports say really artistic, creative, athletic sign holders could earn between $25 and $70 an hour.

• Businesses sometimes use sign holders to skirt ordinances restricting sidewalk signage.

My wife and I noticed a human directional recently on Sycamore Road. We think it was a man, but it was hard to tell exactly who was beneath the Statue of Liberty costume.

By “recently,” I mean just before 10 a.m. Jan. 3. The low temperature Jan. 3 was minus 8, the high was 22, and the mean was 7. It was extremely cold, windy and bitter.

As I said, I’m not sure of the person’s sex, but I am sure the person wore neither hat nor gloves.

But people have to work to live.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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