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A Roadside Icon

Roadside Advertising

ConocoPhillips thought it had a simple plan: Update the look of its “76” brand as stations to make them appear brighter, fresher and more welcoming to modern motorists. And lose those eight-foot-wide rotating orange balls.

That’s when the trouble started.

Even this obscure, spherical bit of roadside Americana turned out to have its fierce partisans. As the 400-pound plastic balls came down, a backlash rose up. People circulated petitions asking the oil company to reverse its decision. Others tried to buy a ball. A movie actor wanted one for his Montana ranch. A museum curator decided a ball belonged in her burgeoning collection of commercial art. “I realized that we should try to save one,” says Kim Koga, who runs the Museum of Neon Art in downtown Los Angeles.

It wasn’t easy. ConocoPhillips didn’t want to part with any balls. The company feared they would end up being sold on online auction sites and potentially cheapen its brand. For months, it didn’t even acknowledge requests from Ms. Koga or other collectors, and instructed its contractors to destroy the balls. “We underestimated the love affair Californians have with the ball,” Michael J. Morrison, ConocoPhillips’ head of U.S. marketing, conceded in a recent interview. Now, the company is beginning to make amends.

Los Angeles is North America’s largest gasoline market and an epicenter of America’s car culture. The Union 76 gasoline brand — known since the 1980s as simply 76 — has long been ubiquitous there. Originally owned by Union Oil of California, later known as Unocal, the circular orange logo with blue letters dates to the 1940s.

It wasn’t until the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair that the ball made the scene. The company hired advertising firm Young & Rubicam to make its display, and executive Ray Pedersen ordered up an enormous orange ball in a style fitting the era’s Space-Age aesthetic. Company officials soon started installing plastic balls at their gas stations up and down the West Coast, as well as a few other scattered locations across the country. The balls were so popular; Unocal began selling a pint-sized version that that fit atop radio antennas.

By 2002, however, the 76 stations were looking a little shabby and the balls a little dated. Unocal had sold the brand to Tosco Corp., which became part of ConocoPhillips. “We felt the appearance needed to be more contemporary,” says Mr. Morrison, the marketing executive. Surveys showed that consumers preferred gas stations that were well lit and had a “bright, clean look,” he says. Color experts hired by the company said a red and white palette conveyed this orderliness. The orange balls didn’t fit.

Starting in 2003, the balls started coming down and being replaced with flat signs with a small red-and-blue 76 logo. Kim Cooper, an author and cultural historian, noticed the new color scheme at a gas station near her Los Angeles house. “It made me feel unsettled,” she says of the new colors. A couple of hours later, she had registered the Web site Save the 76 Ball.

Word of the Web site and the disappearing balls quickly reached Ms. Koga at the Museum of Neon Art. While she was growing up in Southern California, her family had a 76 ball on the antenna of their Volkswagen hatchback. Over the years, her museum had built up a collection of more than 50 commercial signs, ranging from a display for an RCA Victor phonograph to the Pep Boys auto-parts shop’s mascots Manny, Moe & Jack.

Getting a ball, she decided, “would be the highlight of our collection….It moves and lights up. How cool is that?” Last April, she sent a letter to ConocoPhillips’ Houston headquarters. It went unanswered.

Ms. Koga didn’t give up. Through the Web site, she found an independent sign yard in Fresno, Calif., where toppled balls had been spotted. She called to ask about getting one and was brusquely denied, she says. Actor Michael Madsen, known for his role in 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” also called the Fresno yard about the same time and also was turned down. “They are taking them down and they don’t want them anymore,” he says of ConocoPhillips. “Why don’t they give them away?”

Pressure on the company mounted. A petition launched on the Web site attracted nearly 3,000 signatures asking ConocoPhillips to “restore the beloved spheres to the poles where they belong.” Gas-station owners began to ask ConocoPhillips about reconsidering. People even offered to buy balls from the crews taking them off the poles.

In the summer, the company made a small concession to its critics and decided to install new, red balls at 25 California locations. The first, in Sacramento, generated a buzz and the Web site filled with theories about the “mystery” ball. A 50-second video of it slowly spinning showed up on YouTube.

In October, Ms. Koga learned that a commercial sign installer she knew was helping take the balls down. A 76 ball, sliced into pieces, had been spotted in a dumpster on his property. The installer, Lee Swain, had helped her save a giant neon donut and a Bar-B-Q sign for the museum.

It turned out Mr. Swain had removed about 40 of the balls. Under orders from ConocoPhillips, his employees had cut each one into pieces with a saw. He told her he would be happy to help her get a ball, if ConocoPhillips gave its blessing.

About the same time, ConocoPhillips marketing executives fretting over the backlash convened focus groups on the West Coast. A clear message emerged. “People love the ball, they love to talk about the ball and they reminisce about the ball,” says Mr. Morrison.

ConocoPhillips changed course. It decided to install up to 100 red balls, focusing on high-traffic areas where the station owners were interested. And it decided to save about three-dozen orange balls and donate them to “appropriate public collections.” Mr. Swain got an email message: Stop destroying the balls. Today, eight sit in his yard.

Earlier this month, a ConocoPhillips official took a tour of Ms. Koga’s museum. They talked for an hour, reminiscing about a 76 ball that once sat atop the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium. Ms. Koga received word this week from ConocoPhillips: Her museum will finally own a ball.

The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati also will get one. The Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Industry is interested, as is the planned Nascar Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. Several balls might go to gasoline dealers who operate chains of 76 stations and would like a ball to decorate their offices. Mr. Madsen is out of luck, however: No private collectors are getting balls.

Ms. Koga now is worried that the campaign may have worked too well and her ball may lose its cachet. The Petersen Automotive Museum across town is also interested in getting a ball. “If every museum in L.A. gets one,” she asks, “what’s the point of getting one?”

Source: The Wall Street Journal