Intersection Magazine feature

STATE OF THE UNION: The campaign to save the Union 76 ball by Adam Hay-Nicholls

Having been unbolted from its giant cocktail stick, a large orange ball sways high above Hollywood in the afternoon breeze. Slowly it is lowered by a crane, but four feet from the floor it comes crashing down, smashing into tiny plastic splinters. The tangerine shards spread beyond the feet of the assembled onlookers – locals whose view of their Californian town has just been changed. Their sky seems empty without a giant ‘76’ to guide them home. “Please stop destroying American history,” says onlooker Kyle Bates, arms crossed, surveying the wreckage on the gas station bay. “It’s like McDonald’s dumping the arches. Just wrong.”

The Union 76 ball has become iconic to Californians. An eye-catching 700-pound illuminated orange sphere with a dynamic blue ‘76’ font; when your needle is pointing at the red bar there are few more welcome signs. Their dismantling has prompted a boycott petition that has so far been signed by 1,500 gas guzzlers.

ConocoPhillips, the Houston-based energy corporation, inherited the brand when they took over Unocal’s refineries in 2002. Now the branded ball signs are making way for flattened red and blue discs, in order to create a common image among all of their petroleum brands: 76, Phillips 66 and Conoco. “We appreciate motorists’ loyalty to the orange and blue ball”, said a ConocoPhillips statement. “Though our look is a little different, our commitment to our customers remains the same.”

But Nathan Marsak, author of ‘Los Angeles Neon’, reflects the more popular view, countering: “Our urban fabric will lose a groovy, sexy element with the disappearance of this turning orb that still speaks ‘progress’ and ‘fun’ as opposed to its replacement which resembles some sort of giant tombstone.”

The campaign’s chief drum-beater is Kim Cooper, a committed blogger who’s a music writer by day and an LA Confidential-era crime tour guide by night. She, like many Los Angeles residents, felt an attachment to the 76 balls when she first saw them coming down. “Now a lot of people are choosing not to fill up in their stations,” she explains. Kim and friend Nathan Marsak are the writers of the petition. “We want them to stop pulling down the balls and replace those that have been removed,” says Kim. “We’ve been making ‘Please Don’t Take Our Balls’ T-Shirts to support the campaign.”

American’s love affair with the orange ball extends to their own cars. Go for a walk in a supermarket car park anywhere out west and you’ll see rows and rows of ping pong balls, sat on radio antennas, sprayed orange with an emblazoned ‘76’. The marketing promotion reached 17 million driveways.

While many of those small balls remain, the full size ones that have been dismantled lie in a graveyard dump near Fresno, like the yesco site in the Nevada Desert where neon signs from Las Vegas go to die. But campaigners Kim and Nathan won’t let the discarded signs put them off trying to save those that remain. “You’ve got to get on the battlements and fight the good fights,” says Nathan.

The ball’s creator is upset, after fifty years, to finally see his favorite design laid to rest. “I don’t understand why they’re changing to that dark red color”, says Ray Pederson, a sprightly 80 year-old, still in the ad game. “It isn’t attractive or eye-catching… it rather looks like liver.”


Thanks to Adam and to Intersection Magazine for the support!