Tar Heel Tattler - April 2005

Cary sees signs: Sam the sham must scram
By Frank Maley

The first time Tammy Roberts drove through Cary, she thought it was fictional Stepford come to life. “Even the buildings have a boring look to them.”

Many of its houses are white or genteel earth tones. The town regulates the size and number of trees that builders must plant in the yards of new homes. Businesses must keep up appearances, too. They’re not allowed to park vehicles bearing the company name out front if the name is legible from the road. Those are considered illegal portable signs.

You might think a tax consultant would fit in like mortgage interest on a deduction worksheet. But you’d be wrong. To promote her Liberty Tax Service franchise, Roberts dressed up two women — one as Uncle Sam, the other as Lady Liberty — then had them walk along Maynard Road in front of her office toting signs directing passing motorists into the parking lot. It’s a tactic Liberty franchisees often use. Town officials responded with citations for using illegal signs. So she had her actors walk along Maynard without signs. Mark Tutor, the town’s zoning-compliance supervisor, says that’s a no-no, too. “If it was kids on Halloween walking up and down the sidewalk, then, no, that’s not a violation. That’s not in any shape, form or fashion meant be a commercial message.”

Roberts, who hails from the mountains of Virginia and bought her Liberty franchise in Cary in July, insists her costumed commercials have a right to stroll the sidewalk and wave. “It is a public sidewalk and they’re part of the public, so what’s the big deal? [Town officials] are trying to say Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam are attention-grabbing devices. I’m arguing the point that people are not devices.”

But they are attention-grabbing, which is why Roberts and Liberty use them. Competition from do-it-yourself software and other tax preparers is stiff. “Newspaper advertising, radio [or] TV isn’t getting the attention and bringing customers in the door the way these guerrilla marketing tactics seem to,” says Martha O’Gorman, vice president of marketing for Virginia Beach-based Liberty.

The company, with about 1,800 offices in the United States and Ca- nada, has tangled with other cities, too. “I can’t think of one place where we haven’t been able to at least have the costumed characters out on the street and waving.”

Costumed characters are OK in Cary — but not in front of Liberty Tax Service. To show how strange she thinks that is, Roberts paid one of her fines at Town Hall decked out as Lady Liberty. “I didn’t get a ticket for it.