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Effective or inappropriate?

Does the photo to the left grab your attention? Would it grab your attention if it was 10' tall by 30' wide? According to some residents, it grabs the attention of some people a little too much - or a little too young. The billboard reads: "Cover...

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This billboard stands over Third Avenue in Alexandria, across the street from Zion Lutheran Church. Zion members feel it is not appropriate and requested the Minnesota Department of Health to remove it. The request was denied. (Contributed)
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Does the photo to the left grab your attention?

Would it grab your attention if it was 10’ tall by 30’ wide?
According to some residents, it grabs the attention of some people a little too much – or a little too young.
The billboard reads: “Cover your butt! Get a colonoscopy,” and partially shows a portion of a man’s buttocks.
Jeff Roste, a member of Zion Lutheran Church in Alexandria, wrote a letter to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) on behalf of the church and Zion Lutheran School, voicing concern about the billboard and its placement on Third Avenue across the street from the church and school.
“On behalf of our church and community, we want to say how disappointed we are in the ‘inappropriate’ billboard MDH has placed in our community and especially across the street from our church,” Roste wrote. “The message you are sending to our youth and even adults is not tasteful and teaches inappropriate behavior.”
He asked that the MDH consider removing the billboard.
Christina Nelson, representing the MDH’s Cancer Control and Sage Programs in St. Paul, responded, explaining that the billboard is part of a two-month effort to “increase conversation about, and eventually screening for, colorectal cancer.”
She said the campaign uses a mix of humor and loss-based messages to get people’s attention, adding that the audience varies greatly in “preference, taste, and what they find to be humorous, moving, or persuasive.
“I am sorry that you, and your church and community, find our billboard inappropriate and tasteless,” she wrote.
“Our goal is to use eye-catching artwork to promote the important message that getting a colonoscopy will help you protect yourself.”
She added that a goal of the campaign is to motivate people to get screened and to ultimately decrease the number of people who die from it.
“Toward that end, we are testing various messages to reach different audiences,” she said.
Roste asked Nelson if she was aware the billboard sits across the street from a preschool through eighth grade school.
“Not sure they need to know or even care what a colonoscopy is at their age,” he wrote. “We ask that if you are committed to such a ‘gross visual’ campaign, that at least you look at what part of a community you place them in.”
Another letter was written by Zion’s pastor, David Hinz, who stated that he and the Zion congregation appreciate the MDH’s efforts to educate people about colon cancer.
“However,” he wrote, “I hold concern over the suggestive and questionable message that is being sent regarding dignity and respect. Our goal is not to cause ripples, but to uphold values.  I remain confident that advertising with a sense of dignity can still be done in very effective ways.”
When contacted by the Echo Press, Nelson said that the MDH does try to pay attention to where the billboards are placed and that they take all input into consideration in regards to their campaigns.
“We were not aware that the boards Mr. Roste mentioned posted directly across the street from a church and a school,” she said. “Appropriate placement of billboard artwork is important to us. Our billboard campaign is scheduled to be in Alexandria for the next month and a half; current billboard artwork will be replaced or rotated in early April.”
“We will try to pay more attention to placement near schools and churches in the future,” she said. “The billboard is scheduled to be in Alexandria for the next month and a half; we are trying to see if we can move it to another location, if that is a possibility at this point.”
Roste also contacted Alexandria City Planner Mike Weber, asking what laws or ordinances govern billboards in the city.
Weber replied that the First Amendment does not allow the regulation of signs based on content.
Based on recommendations from the League of Minnesota Cities, the city of Alexandria’s zoning ordinance, which covers sign regulations, is content-neutral, and includes the following statement: “…the right to express noncommercial opinions in any zoning district must be protected, subject to reasonable restrictions on size, height, location and number.” 
The MDH billboard is non-commercial.
“I get it, when they say they want to approach their advertising from the lighter side of things, but when does it become too much?” Roste asked.
“At what point do we as a community need to stand back and take a look at when something humorous crosses the line of ‘good standing morals.’ We can’t keep compromising what we all as adults know is inappropriate.  The line needs to be drawn.”

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