Floating billboards turn Miami waterfront into Times Square. But are they legal?

You emerge from the Perez Art Museum Miami to take a bayfront stroll only to be confronted by a jumbo screen advertisement for Señor Frog’s cruising through the water. You were contemplating sculpture. Now you’re blinking at 12-foot-tall people who are dancing and eating bad tacos. Your attempt to enjoy a scenic view has been scuttled by a floating billboard.

Hoping to escape crass commercialism at the beach? Forget it. Whether you’re sitting on the sand or wading in the ocean, it’s impossible not to notice the barge chugging back and forth parallel to shore. Its cargo is a 46-foot-long, double-sided LED sign displaying a loop of ads for beer, sportswear, nightclubs and restaurants.

This novel marketing vessel was launched two years ago in Miami, but a sister barge — even bigger, with a 20-by-60-foot screen — recently began making daily voyages around the southern tip of Manhattan. New Yorkers jogging along the Hudson River or resting on a Brooklyn bench are aghast that their waterfront has been turned into another Times Square. On Gothamist social media posts they speculate on how to sink it: Torpedos? Flaming arrows? Pirates?

Ire and jokes aside, the floating billboards aren’t going away. In fact, they are so popular with advertisers that Ballyhoo Media, the Miami company that invented the innovative outdoor consumer marketing platform, has plans to expand to new cities and add special events, such as a Miami beachfront screening of “Jaws” this summer during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… more ads.

“I grew up on the beach, and this idea originated with the realization that a boat would be better than banner planes that pull one message at a time overhead while generating a lot of air traffic and noise,” said Ballyhoo CEO Adam Shapiro, who worked as an umbrella boy in his hometown of Ocean City, Maryland.

Barge backlash has been replaced by acceptance, Shapiro said.

“Initially, people in Miami were skeptical. It’s scary at first like anything new — whoa, what is this electronic thing on the water?” Shapiro said. “You can’t please everyone and I can’t attempt to, but we get just as many calls from people who think it’s a cool concept.”

Shapiro’s clients like the head-turning visibility of the boats that enable brands to “saturate an entire city,” “become the talk of the town,” or “break through the clutter,” his website says.

But critics ask, how much clutter can the human brain absorb before it is overwhelmed by stimulation? Advertising’s omnipresence has spread to the sides of buildings, buses and trains, the jerseys of athletes, the screens of computers and phones — to the point that pop-up ad blockers are being marketed, too. Is no space safe from pitches, promos and pixelation? Will your bathroom mirror someday scroll Viagra and teeth-whitening product logos? Will videos of sleek SUVs be projected onto Yosemite’s Half Dome? Will the Statue of Liberty sell her torch as signage for immigration law firms?

“It’s a never-ending fight against visual pollution,” said Peter Ehrlich, co-founder of the advocacy group Scenic Miami. He can see the floating billboard on its Biscayne Bay route from his home on the Upper East Side. “All outdoor ads are an assault on the senses. The advent of LED signs made them 50 times brighter and particularly obnoxious. Miami is the holy grail for advertisers because of the number of tourists we attract. The Ultra music festival and Super Bowl 2020 will be a bonanza.”

Shapiro, who said he is “in conversations” with local Super Bowl organizers about marketing and showcasing the big game that will be held at Hard Rock Stadium next year, estimates that Ballyhoo’s boat ads are seen by 100,000 people daily in Miami and 500,000 people daily in New York. The route in Miami-Dade County, which includes the Miami River, downtown Miami and Miami Beach, covers a total of about seven miles. The New York route covers eight miles on the Hudson and East rivers.

“This barge is driving people crazy,” said Marcy Benstock, executive director of the Clean Air Campaign and Open Rivers Project in New York. “It’s an appalling intrusion of product marketing into areas we treasure. You want to experience the peace and serenity of open water — and suddenly this thing is looming in your line of sight. These are public spaces and once we start giving up our public waterways to completely unwarranted uses, where does it stop?”

In response to complaints, the City of New York challenged the legality of Ballyhoo’s operation and sent Shapiro a letter in January explaining that zoning rules “prohibit display of an advertising sign on any vessel in a waterway adjacent to a residential, commercial or manufacturing district and within view of an arterial highway. Any violation of Zoning Resolution provisions is a misdemeanor subject to fines as high as $25,000 per violation per day,” and the city had “cause to believe Ballyhoo is in violation,” wrote Brian Horan, senior counsel for the city.

But Shapiro said he has resolved the dispute and is “running unimpeded in New York.” Horan did not answer an inquiry for an update on Wednesday.

“This company may think they’ve found a loophole and it may take a stack of lawyers to sort it out, but we’ve asked the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard to apply federal laws and halt the barge,” Benstock said. “Advertising is not a truly water-dependent use.”

According to the Miami-Dade County Code, which supersedes municipal codes, floating structures are prohibited if they do not have a water-dependent use. Furthermore, the county’s Sign Code prohibits digital technology with few exceptions.

“A sign on a barge is a floating structure violation,” said Dusty Melton, a Miami-Dade lobbyist who helped draft the sign ordinance. “Then again, those signs on trucks driving around? Also illegal. And every LED billboard installed in the city of Miami is illegal.”

The problem, Melton said, is lack of enforcement.

“The city has egregiously authorized a variety of illegal signs with impunity because the county doesn’t have the funds to enforce their own rules,” he said. “Miami pioneered signage in exchange for millions of dollars in annual fees when the city became business partners with these advertising companies. The signs on AmericanAirlines Arena and the Children’s Museum and all the other snazzy, jazzy illuminated signs you see — I call them serial acts of municipal prostitution.”

Miami Beach prohibits vessels that display general advertisements upon its jurisdictional waters, according to Chief Deputy City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner, and that includes Atlantic Ocean waters within 1,500 feet of the low water mark at the shoreline.

“There’s no question it comes close to shore and it’s in your face,” Ehrlich said.

Although it appears that the Ballyhoo boat often runs inside that 500-yard boundary, police or code officers must observe the violation before they can issue a citation.

“All I know is our operation is legal,” Shapiro said. “We operate within codes, abide by maritime laws and emphasize safety. We’ve cooperated with local governments. We love the beach and would never to anything that would have a negative impact on beaches.”

Shapiro argues that floating ads are less of a nuisance than stationary ones.

“Our boats are designed not to be intrusive,” he said. “We’ve moving, and after a short period of time, we’re gone. Our South Beach run is about an hour, so you’ll only see us a few times for a few minutes and we move on. In New York, you’re lucky to see it more than once per day.”

Ballyhoo has branched out to host local events on its high-definition screen, such as a Super Bowl-watching party at Virginia Key beach, World Cup-watching parties at the Haulover sandbar and other game-watching gatherings on the Miami River.

Ballyhoo has run public service announcements: Alerting beachgoers about water quality, condemning the harvest and sale of shark fins, honoring notable leaders on International Women’s Day, displaying “Pittsburgh Strong” after the synagogue shooting. During Art Basel, Ballyhoo featured an installation by artist Alfredo Jaar. Movie trailers are on tap.

“It’s a great community builder,” Shapiro said.

But it’s also a floating billboard built to rove for eyeballs.

Soon, New Yorkers will be bombarded by messages from 40,000 video screens installed in subway cars and stations. Soon, we’ll be living in the cacophonous, stress-hormone-producing adscape of “Blade Runner.”

As Ehrlich puts it: “How much tacky sensory overload can we take?”