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Barging In: City Suit Seeks to Sink Sailing Signage

An advertising barge sails past motorists in Manhattan.
An advertising barge sails past motorists in Manhattan. Photo: Screenshot via Ballyhoo Media

A new lawsuit aims to torpedo the advertising efforts of a Florida company whose floating digital billboards have made a splash along New York’s waterways, THE CITY has learned.

The suit, filed by the de Blasio administration in Manhattan Federal Court on Wednesday morning, accuses Ballyhoo Media of “repeatedly violating” city zoning laws that, since 1964, have restricted water-based ads that are visible from a highway.

It adds that the floating LED screens — which measure 60 feet by 20 feet — are a “public nuisance” that are “designed to distract drivers, cyclists and others.”

“Our waterways aren’t Times Square,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement to THE CITY. “These floating eyesores have no place on them.”

Ballyhoo — which bills itself as “revolutionizing water-based advertising” — arrived in New York last October, with its floating billboards largely going down the Hudson River, around the southern tip of Manhattan and up the East River to Roosevelt Island.

At times, they’ve also traveled along the Brooklyn shoreline.

Thomas Dodson described the floating ads as "dystopian."
Thomas Dodson described the floating ads as “dystopian.” Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“It’s time for these obnoxious LED barges to make like Enya and ‘sail away,’ ” cracked Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn City Council member, referencing the Irish singer-songwriter’s late ‘80s hit “Orinoco Flow.”

The suit from City Hall seeks to bar Ballyhoo from displaying its advertising on any vessel in city waters — and to have it slapped with fines of up to $25,000 a day for violating city zoning laws.

Ballyhoo’s barges have featured ads for television shows, beer and the movie “The Grinch.” The de Blasio administration contends they pose a serious safety hazard to drivers on waterfront roadways.

Drivers are part of the company’s sales pitch on its website, which says the water-based ads can be seen by “86 million cars” along the West Side Highway and the FDR Drive — and from ferries, apartments and office buildings.

Ballyhoo contends the advertising barges are legal — and operating in waters not under New York City’s control.

“We look forward to the judicial determination affirming that and plan to continue operating within the bounds of the law,” CEO Adam Shapiro told THE CITY. “Advertising along the city’s waterways is not new activity, Ballyhoo just happens to be the newest.”

Along the Hudson River waterfront, several people said the billboards are hard to miss.

“We live with enough advertising as it is,” said Thomas Dodson, 46, who works in a building with views of the Hudson. “To look out across the river and see billboards, it’s dystopian.”

“It’s not gorgeous, but it’s advertising,” said Christina Deodes, 54, who was sunning herself along the Battery Park City Esplanade. “It’s no worse than ads on the ferries or on the buses.”

This story was originally published in Intelligencer at nymag.com.