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There's A New Kind Of Sign Spinner In Town

Posted: October 15, 2013

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You're driving down the street, and there on the corner, something familiar: a person waving a giant advertisement. Wait, that's not a real person! In cities across the country, sign-waving mannequins are helping to advertise things like cash for gold, furniture and apartments.

A sign-waving mannequin, a still from a promotional YouTube video.

"Sandy," a sign-waving mannequin, helps bring in customers to a Los Angeles smoke shop. Alex Schmidt

Want to get cash for gold, buy furniture, find a tanning salon or rent an apartment? You could look those things up online, but in many cities if you just drive around, you probably won't have to go far before you see a person spinning a giant sign that will point you in the right direction.

Or maybe you've just seen so many sign spinners that they don't even catch your eye anymore.

Meet the sign-spinning mannequin. She's freakishly tall, and her head is turned way back, Exorcist style. She can't possibly be human. After you get over the weirdness, you might have a reaction like Virgil Ribancos did. He warily eyed one of these gals from a convenience store in Los Angeles. She had, after all, taken the job of an able-bodied human.

"That's one way for you to save labor because they use a mannequin now, so that's one lost job," Ribancos says.

It's more than one job. There are several sign-spinning mannequin companies now, in LA, Oregon, Florida and beyond. Some business owners are going the Geppetto route and making them from scratch.

Christopher Hunanyan enlisted the help of relatives to create the 6-foot-tall bombshell he named Sandy in front of his LA smoke shop.

"It is a good investment," Hunanyan says. He says the mannequin is bringing in customers, sales and profits.

Here's the thing: No one loves that mannequins are taking jobs, but they're really good at what they do — attracting attention. Gary Martin did a double-take as he walked past Sandy.

"First, the model is not bad looking. The movement I think is the thing that is really eye catching. It's kind of an awkward movement. It's like jerky, in a nonhuman fashion," Martin says. (Other models, like the ones in this YouTube video, have a more smooth sign-waving technique.)

The way advertising works is we get used to stuff, then we stop noticing it. So marketers are in a constant arms race to get our attention. They have to get weirder and weirder — like with the mannequins — and more sophisticated.

Carnegie Mellon robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh says one day the mannequins may become actual robots — able to see us, guess our age and gender and customize their marketing messages with frightening accuracy.

"It's funny because that future we end up in, where that arms race is fully realized, is one in which we're the robots because they've learned how to remote control us people. So the consumer becomes the robot, except we're human," Nourbakhsh says.

There are still hundreds of human sign spinners on the streets of LA, and they aren't all taking this lying down. Mario Bides was standing in the sun on Venice Boulevard, waving a "Cash 4 Gold" sign.

Looking at an online ad for the mannequins, Bides makes some fair points about his competitive value. In Spanish, he asks, "What if a car comes at the mannequin? It won't move. If it rains, the mannequin will break." And he points out that the business owner has to clean it and regularly take it in and out. Bides, on the other hand, bathes himself, and he shows up for work on his own, happy to be there.

Bides says if a robot does take his job, he's not worried about finding another one. His only real quibble with the mannequins is that they all seem to be white. He requests equal opportunity for Latina mannequins, too.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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