Billboard Liberated

Back in 2009, when they "upgraded" the Coke Sign neon to LEDs, I wrote: "Coke Sign neon replaced with high fructose corn syrup" --

Now normally I have a visceral, knee-jerk allergy to advertising in pretty much any form (and I don't even drink Coke, see sidebar), but I have to admit that I have some love for that Coke sign.

It was so old and janky and never worked right! Half of the lights seemed to run on Lucas three-position switch technology (off, dim and flicker) and it was a different half almost every night. I have long had this fantasy that the reason the sign always looked like that is that there is only one guy left in the world who knows how to fix the mechanical relays that drive its pattern logic, and that guy is 95 and has trouble getting up and down the ladder to sweep the birdshit out of the contacts with his vintage Nineteenth-century wire brush.

That's how it is in my head, anyway. If the reality is not actually like that, then I don't want to know.

But anyway, replacing it with a slick, modern LED facimile? Feh! I shake an angry fist.

And the replacement sign was exactly as slick and boring as I expected... for a few years.

Then the LEDs started flaking out in a similar, but different, way to the old neon tubes! The quality of the light still wasn't the same, but at least it eventually reverted back to "janky-assed and un-maintained", which was what was charming about the original version.

At least there was that.

Anyway, let's also spare a thought for the late, lamented (if only lamented by me personally) Moscone BSOD-o-Tron, which was removed in 2015:

Is this Cyberpunk? I guess it might be: ubiquitous technology that doesn't work. This giant TV screen on the side of Moscone has been running a halfassed implementation of "Mismunch" since about a month after it went up. Why do they even leave it powered up? Maybe nobody remembers how to turn it off.

When it first went up, they played this panoramic movie on it that was timed so that as the sign crawled its way around the building, it looked like the video was a stationary window into a room full of giants. Stock-photo-model-businessman giants. It was kind of cool.

Ever since then: ten years of Munching Squares.

A new life awaits you in the Moscone Colonies! Press any key to continue.

The sugar-water details, and some history:

We spoke with a representative of the sign's maker at YESCO Bay Area, who confirmed that the sign is being removed permanently, when asked what would become of the sign, he said, "Coca-cola's contract stipulates that it be destroyed after removal."

It is not clear why Coca-cola is removing its famous, neon billboard, one that has stood 112ft above San Francisco since 1937. Perhaps it's because commuter traffic is down in the Bay Area by 20% due to the pandemic, or maybe it's because of San Francisco's very vocal, anti-soda stance and 2016 Soda Tax, which charged everyone an extra tax for buying sugary drinks. This tax raised millions of dollars over the last 4 years by the way, $1.65 million of those soda tax funds are currently being used to provide emergency food for people affected by COVID-19).

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7 Responses:

  1. Ryan Finnie says:

    Oracle Park? Pfft, corporate sell-outs. I still call Pac Bell Park because I have nostalgia for very specific brand sponsorships.

  2. Eric says:

    That broken billboard on Moscone West was designed by Diller Scofidio+Renfro, the same firm that designed much more successful projects like The High Line Park in NYC and The Broad museum in LA.

  3. Dude says:

    I'm now imagining your old man-fixer and wonder what kind of materials he used to refill the smoke on signs like this:
    (I half-jokingly decided to look up when someone last tried a live smoking billboard and was surprised to find the answer was back in 2017, albeit in Brazil) But yeah, being born in SF means one feels a pinch knowing the Coke sign won't be there - and I don't even drive, so I rarely saw it as it is. The Columbus statue at Coit Tower was a pro-coloniser eye-sore that no one will miss and the cross at Mt. Davidson is, at least, impressive to stand under.

    But the Coke sign? That thing always had an analogue charm to it (especially in its pre-LED days).

  4. CoJo says:


  5. Elektro says:

    if you are ever in Cincinnati...

    Also, Jungle Jims of course

  6. MattyJ says:

    Glad I had the forethought to memorialize the previous billboard before they replaced it.

    I wrote Coke an email about the old one when they were taking it down to ask why and they said it was too expensive to maintain (or not maintain, as it were) and it was eating electricity like it was going out of style.

    Bummed that they're taking the new one down now, too. It's the first thing I remember seeing when we drove into San Francisco for the first time.

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