Oahu residents are quick to disagree on almost any major issue from same-sex marriage to rail transit to Kakaako development.

But for the last 100 years there has been little disagreement about a central concern: the need to protect the island’s scenic beauty from businesses putting up large outdoor advertising signs.

The latest struggle is against Aerial Banners North, a Florida-based company, which insists it has the right to tow banners across Oahu’s skies despite state and county laws prohibiting aerial advertising.

An Ad in the Sky

This photo illustration is an advertisement for the airborne billboard services of Aerial Banner North on the company’s Facebook page.

Aerial Banners North

I am proud of my fellow residents for never giving in when it comes to saying no to large advertising signs — even when they are being bullied, as they are now, by a company that refuses to follow our laws.

And equally proud of The Outdoor Circle for being the first to alert the mayor and the police when its members saw Aerial Banners North ads in the sky over North Shore and Kailua Beaches over the Memorial Day weekend, and again July 4.

Aerial Banners North says it will continue to tow big banners above Oahu’s beaches with its small yellow plane even though its pilot has been cited by the Honolulu Police Department and is facing a fine of up to $500 and a maximum of 30 days in jail, or both.

The company insists a Federal Aviation Administration waiver allows it to fly banners in every state, including Hawaii.

But the FAA itself says the waiver does not supersede Hawaii’s state laws and county ordinances, which forbid “outdoor, off-premise advertising.”

Hawaii billboards1920s vintage Hawaii Quaker Oats historic

Nearly 100 years ago there were billboards in Hawaii, as this photo from the 1920s demonstrates.

Courtesy of The Outdoor Circle

Off-premise means any outdoor advertising that is done away from the business itself, and that includes aerial advertising.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell has told the company to stop and The Outdoor Circle has issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aerial Banners North.

That company’s attorney, Michael McAllister, says he is ready to take the case to court to prove the company is right.

The most touching part of the skirmish over ads in the sky has been to watch The Outdoor Circle spring into action, which is in line with the group’s long tradition.

The century-old organization is just as relevant today as it was when it was founded by a group of Honolulu society matrons in 1912.

The 30 initial members were all volunteers who banded together to beautify dusty, dry Honolulu with shade trees and plant “as much hibiscus as possible” — and to get rid of all billboards.

Hawaii billboards 1920s Chesterfield

There were even ads for cigarettes.

Courtesy of The Outdoor Circle

One of their most famous battles was launched in 1926 when an immense Heinz Dill Pickle billboard was erected on the road to Waikiki, partially blocking motorists’ view of Diamond Head.

The women launched a successful boycott against Heinz and other companies that used billboards to advertise. They visited Honolulu businesses owners to implore them to get rid of their billboards.

Heinz took down its sign. But Outdoor Circle members were looking for a larger victory. They raised $4,000 to buy Hawaii’s last billboard sign company, Charles R. Frazier’s Honolulu Poster Service, and promptly closed it down.

By 1927, The Outdoor Circle had successfully urged the Legislature to approve a territory-wide ban against billboards.

Billboards in the Sky

In 1978, Circle members prompted the City Council to approve an ordinance prohibiting aerial advertising. In 2005, the state added aerial banners to its list of illegal types of outdoor advertising. The next year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the aerial advertising ban.

“I feel like we have already fought this fight. We should have been done with this. But apparently we are not, “ says Marti Townsend, executive director of The Outdoor Circle.

Billboards Hawaii 1920s ice cream soap historic hawaii Piorneer advertising Company

The Outdoor Circle’s anti-advertising activism led to the elimination of billboards like these.

Courtesy of The Outdoor Circle

Townsend grew up in Waimalu. She is a graduate of Moanalua High School and the University of Hawaii’s Richardson Law School.

She joined The Outdoor Circle as a volunteer right after graduating from Boston University. She was inspired to join when she saw the Circle’s executive director at the time, Mary Steiner, in a TV interview, standing up for an old banyan tree that was supposed to get chopped down.

“I thought, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’” said Townsend.

Even though the company is towing advertising banners in other states, that’s not going to fly here.

She says the joy of volunteer work at the Circle when it helped to win big fights — including stopping Hawaiian Electric’s proposed 138-kilovolt transmission line on Waahila Ridge — prompted her to enter the environmental law program at the UH.

Today, the Circle has 1,000 members in nine branches spread out over the Hawaiian Islands.

In the old days, much of the Circle’s business was done at luncheons and tea parties. These days, crusades against visual blight and for city beautification are carried out by hard-working women and men after they finish their regular jobs.

Townsend says there are always new challenges, including Mayor Caldwell’s quest to put advertising signs on the outside of city buses.

Truck billboard advertising truck

One of the many vehicles on Hawaii’s roads that are decked out with ads.

The Outdoor Circle

And there is the Internet. Townsend says she recently got in touch with a mainland businessman who was advertising on craiglist.org and offering to pay Oahu homeowners if they put up the signs of commercial businesses on the fences of their residences.

She says she told him it was illegal and persuaded him to stop.

Townsend says she is heartened by the fact that so many people here are vocal about preserving views.

“It is inspiring to see something we can all agree on, the need to protect the scenic beauty of Hawaii, “ she said.

McAllister, the attorney for Aerial Banners North, sent an email on Monday to say he was traveling and unable to answer my questions.

UPDATED:

Michael McAllister, the attorney for Aerial Banners North, called from Florida on Tuesday to respond to queries I sent several days earlier.

He says the company is getting ready to tow more banners over Oahu this weekend.

Why is the company doing so when Oahuʻs public is so clearly opposed to flying billboards?

“There is no question there is a vocal group opposed to all advertising in Hawaii,” McAllister says. “But there is another group that appreciates what we are doing and says keep up the good fight.”

About a dozen companies are eager to hire Aerial Banners to advertise, he says.

“It is my perception that a small group of people on Oahu opposes everything that ever happens in Hawaii,” McAllister says. “But I expect the clamor to die down and the public to accept and approve of what we are doing.”

The Aerial Bannersʻ pilot who was cited by HPD is prepared to defend himself and, if the company is cited in the future, McAllister says, “It will vigorously defend itself.”

“It is our position that we are flying lawfully in accordance with the FAA waiver.”

But if Aerial Banners North thinks it can prevail against The Outdoor Circle and the people of Hawaii, it has another thing coming.

Even though the company is towing advertising banners in other states, that’s not going to fly here.

About the Author