Here are five more 76 Ball short films from the camera of Earl Ma, these from his recent trip to Southern California. Compared to the Oahu spheres posted earlier, you'll note that the SoCal stations aren't using the rotating motors, thus weakening the power of this extraordinary sign. Is this a cost-saving move, or just another symbol of corporate neglect?
Studio City Union 76 service station, 12863 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City, CA, April 2006
Gregory Union 76 service station, 5436 W. 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA, April 2006
Tommy's Union 76 service station, 5890 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, April 2006
Jack Colkers Union 76 station, 427 N. Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills, CA, April 2006
Norm's Union 76 service station, 7979 W. Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, April 2006
Burma-Shave rhyme signs, Howard Johnson's orange roofs, KFC's revolving chicken buckets: all pieces of modern Americana that today exist mostly in memory alone. Now, the iconic orange-and-blue Union 76 gas-station ball is on its way to joining them - unless Kim Cooper can stop it.
Cooper, 39, is a native Angelino and self-proclaimed "ultimate dilettante." From editing and publishing Scram, a journal of un- popular culture, to co-hosting the "1947project," a blog and bus-tour series highlighting LA's off-the-beaten-path crime sites, "my job is rescuing the underdog from neglect and destruction," she says.
The underdog this time is the 76 ball, the 45-year-old victim of a quiet marketing shift that began just after the 2002 merger of gas giants Conoco and Phillips.
According to its 2004 annual report, ConocoPhillips, which operates Conoco and Phillips gas stations, as well as 76, that year initiated a project to streamline the three brands' marketing efforts. So while its Web site refers to the 76 logo as "a long-trusted symbol [that] means something special to our customers," its most recent graphic-standards manual calls for a brand-consistent red-and-blue color scheme, rather than the historic, eye-popping orange.
"They began knocking down the 76 balls," Cooper recalls. These omnipresent symbols for gasoline in many parts of the US were methodically being substituted with ground-level "monuments" or taller, disc-shaped signage. Many of the LA area's 400 spheres have already been replaced, including the one that rose above Dodger Stadium for decades.
Cooper teamed with LA author Nathan Marsak in January to launch www.savethe76ball.com, a Web site dedicated to preserving the 76 balls "for generations to come." Featuring 76 sphere-related news, history, photos, and discussion, the site includes downloadable "I love your 76 ball" calling cards and a link to an online petition urging ball lovers to boycott ConocoPhillips-brand outlets if the company "does not demonstrate greater respect for the history and good will associated with the 76 ball."
Orb enthusiasts have responded in droves. The petition has 2,100-plus signatures, many accompanied by wistful, ball-inspired recollections and pledges to pump at Exxon or Shell. |
Cooper's endeavor has been showcased by media outlets from the LA Times to the BBC. Actor Michael Madsen even offered to help out, then asked where he could get his hands on a retired sphere. And following a Seattle radio interview, Cooper was contacted by former Young & Rubicam art director Ray Pederson - the man who designed the original ball as signage for a Union Oil Co.-sponsored sky-tram ride at the 1962 World's Fair - who offered his enthusiastic support.
Although ConocoPhillips has issued a statement thanking 76 ball junkies for their patronage, the company has yet to discontinue its icon-devastating, brand-continuity effort. But "the fact that people feel as strongly as they do about the balls," Cooper says, is a testament to their resonance.
"Children look for the 76 pumpkin every Halloween, and it makes them happy," she says. And the company's ubiquitous car-antenna mini-balls, introduced in 1967, became both a promotional coup and a still-strong fad: By the late 1990s, 76 was dolling out 4 million toppers every year.
Cooper admits that on some level, the effort is prank-like and "silly." She says she's "been attacked by people for putting my energies into this rather frivolous and highly charged campaign."
But saving the 76 sphere is about more than a gas-station sign. "If you don't look at what's around you, it's very easy to not care if things get knocked down and destroyed, things that actually reflect the culture, history, and changes of your place," she explains. "I think it's a tragedy."
Exhibition coordinator and librarian, LA Museum of Contemporary Art
Researcher, The Oakland Museum of California
Copyright © 2005 PRWeek
photo by Ricardo DeAratanha, LA Times
Having a Ball
Bloggers launch campaign to save 76 insignia
By KATE BERRY
Los Angeles Business Journal Staff
The ball is back in ConocoPhillips’ court.
Two Los Angeles bloggers with a fondness for vintage California signs have launched a Web campaign to save the rotating orange and blue Union 76 balls that were for decades that oil company’s identifying symbol.
The orange globes, often referred to as “meatballs,” have turned into Southern California pop culture icons largely because of their longevity – they’ve been around for 59 years.
Since ConocoPhillips bounced the balls from its ad campaign last year, they have started disappearing from West Coast highways and corner gas stations. At their peak in the 1960s, the 76 balls could be found on as many as 4,000 Union 76 gas stations from Seattle to San Diego. By some counts, the number of balls has dwindled to less than 300.
When Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak realized that their local gas station had carted off its giant 76 ball, they created a Web site – savethe76ball.com – featuring a tongue-in-cheek petition asking consumers to urge the Texas oil giant to stop dropping the ball.
On the site, the bloggers claim ConocoPhillips is guilty of “design terrorism” for throwing out the “goodwill” associated with the 76 balls. Visitors can sign the petition and print a card urging remaining gas station owners to keep their balls.
A spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips refused to comment.
After Cooper launched the Web site last month, she was contacted by Ray Pedersen, who redesigned the orange logo in 1955 for Union Oil. Pedersen, who is well known in the advertising industry, also designed Yoplait’s distinctive yogurt containers.
He conceived the orange ball as a futuristic globe that was to adorn a Union Oil ride at the Seattle World’s Fair. With that as the inspiration, he designed a “Spirit of 76” ad campaign.
In 1967, when the company had become Unocal Corp., it launched a wildly popular promotion in which millions of small plastic balls were distributed at its gas stations to be attached to cars’ radio antennae. Today, a classic 76 antenna ball can be purchased on eBay for roughly $1.50.
“The 76 balls are very urban and visually stunning,” said Cooper, who with Marsak writes for 1947project.blogspot, a day-by-day account of Los Angeles crime history from the era of the Black Dahlia. Marsak is author of “Los Angeles Neon,” and has developed an interest in vintage signs.
“Gasoline is one of the hardest things to create a brand for because it’s all identical,” said Cooper. “Yet here is one of the most visible images in the market and they’re just throwing the balls away.”