You may just have to be a born and bred Californian to really understand it, but the recent dislodging of the spinning orange 76 balls from their posts at gas stations throughout the Golden State is no laughing matter.
"Out at the corner of my street is a 76 station. It was about six months ago, and I remember seeing the ball missing," said Kim Cooper, who co-founded a Web page, www.savethe76ball.com, to rally support for the Union 76 icons. "I was disoriented, and then I decided I wasn't going to look there anymore."
Cooper's grass roots movement is pressing its hardest to put the brakes on what is, in its view, the unceremonious removal of the iconic, rotating 76 globes in favor of flat, stationary, red 76 signs similar to those found demarcating most gas stations around the country.
"We can tell when they're going to come down," said Cooper. "It doesn't happen the same day. They put some orange tape around [the signs], kind of marking them down like a crime scene, and then they come with a crane days later."
As of this writing, 2,703 signatures have been logged on an online petition, most of the signers claiming they'll never patronize Union 76 again. Seeing as these signs dot all of Hollywood, it was only a matter of time before someone famous got vocal.
"Michael Madsen called me and wanted to help," said Cooper. Actor Madsen, best known for his role in "Reservoir Dogs," sees the removal of the 76 signs as a metaphor for bland Hollywood, both scenically and creatively.
"As someone who moved out to California in the '80s, Madsen has seen a lot of these landmarks disappear," said Cooper. "He was worried that his children were going to grow up in a generic world."
Corporate Uniformity or an Attack Against California?
With such an outpouring of passion over a ball that spins in front of a gas station, no one really seems to understand why this sign change is happening, but that doesn't stop the speculation.
"I have a theory," said Cooper. "There are many long-standing rivals in the oil industry. ... I'm sure on some level that now that ConocoPhillips of Texas is in charge of Union Oil of California, they feel like they're going to destroy [Unocal's] sign and there's nothing [Unocal] can do about it. 'We don't care if we lose money at the 76 pumps, if we alienate their customers, because we're already making record profits.'"
Dave Dettore, a managing director at the Brand Institute, a company that's worked with ConocoPhillips on other branding concepts, said that without being on the inside, it's impossible to guess what may be behind its decision.
"One reason brands and icons might die could range from ... the cost of printing different letterheads to maintaining multiple bank accounts," explained Dettore. "I consider it an example of pruning, so that you cut off the branch for the benefit of the whole tree."
ConocoPhillips released the following written statement as its official comment to ABC News: "ConocoPhillips is implementing a nationwide transition of its 76, Phillips 66 and Conoco branded stations to a common image. The intent of this transition is to leverage the strengths of each brand while also offering consistency in appearance across our brands. Thus, the formerly orange 76 logo is now red."
The 76 Ball Means More Than 'Gas Sold Here'