Sept. 11, 2006 — -- 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'
"How can you take the most visible sign in the entire world?" Cooper asked. "That orange and blue that looks so good in the orange red sky. To then just get rid of that and come up with a sign that some design student would get an 'F' for."
Ray Pedersen has gotten more than his money's worth for the 76 ball he designed by hand, long before the days of computer graphics, for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle.
"At the time, Union Oil was just using a flat lollipop," recalled Pedersen. "I just resisted that lollipop. It would be hard to evolve, and it just didn't have three-dimensional visibility. You could only see it from one or two directions."
So Pedersen, who also designed the Yoplait Yogurt tub and the Budweiser Beer box, spent close to $50,000, an astronomical amount at the time, for just a sign. But this wasn't just any sign. It was a beacon that could be viewed from all directions.
"Boy, when they found out I spent all that money, I thought I was out of a job," said Pedersen. "But when [Union Oil] saw it the first time, they said, 'Damn it! This is fantastic. We're going to put these up at every gas station we ever own!'"
At their peak, there were more than 3,200 spinning 76 balls lighting up corners across the nation. In the '70s, they became a pop sensation as radio antennae toppers. They even put one up in the outfield at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, which was quietly removed recently during the off-season in favor of a newer version of that dreaded lollipop 76 sign that Pedersen was originally commissioned to replace.
"The orange and blue was very clean," said Pedersen. "Union Oil of California always prided themselves about having the cleanest restrooms and gas stations."
"The only problem I ever had with the sign was the belt that ran the motor would break about every two years, and I would have to pay to have it fixed," wrote Steve Speckman, who has owned or worked at a 76 station since 1972. "Also, a few years ago, we had an energy crisis, and we were asked by the city to turn the ball off. We did for a few months, then I turned mine on again. Nobody came around to stop me, so I let it go for a few years until the day they took it down and cut it into pieces."
"There's only so many shapes out there and 76 owns the sphere. It'd be really difficult in my mind to say, 'Let's go look for something else,'" said Scott Jeffrey, the chief creative officer at the Design Forum, whose job is to create branding ideas. "I think, in this case, it will backfire. That 76 ball is interruptive. It's everything that you ask a sign to be."
Other Brands Have Come and Gone Too
Despite what some Californians may want to believe, they're not alone in their nostalgia for corporate petrol logos.
In St. Louis, a similar gas station merger threatens a landmark sign -- this time it's Amoco being bought out by BP. No changes have been made yet to the big Amoco sign perched on top of the Stevenson's Hi-Pointe gas station at the corner of Skinker and Clayton. Ask most residents of St. Louis, and they'll probably agree the big Amoco sign is as well known locally as the Gateway Arch.
"BP is slowly but surely replacing the [Amoco logo] torch and ovals across the country," said a Stevenson's station clerk. "This one is unique in its size, but I think, in time, this one is going to change. It's just not going to stay Amoco forever."
As buying gas becomes less about loyalty and more about a commodity, the latest trend in the gas-branding industry is for companies to look like one another. "I think there's been a trend to be less distinctive in this particular field," said Jeffrey. "Mobil, for instance, took the Pegasus out of their sign years ago."
This week Federated Stores erased the name of the legendary Marshall Field's of Chicago -- among other regional titles -- and replaced it with Macy's, also to create a greater national brand identity, not to mention how many bank logos have come and gone.
What About Future Generations?
While it doesn't appear at the moment that there's going to be a last-minute pardon for the orange 76 sign, collectors trying to preserve what's left of the ball for future generations aren't finding any luck either.
"It's a trademarked logo, they said, so nobody could have bought it or taken it home for Ebay," said Speckman, who isn't permitted to choose what happens to his own sign.
Madsen reportedly begged to get one and was denied. Even the ball's own father, Pedersen, doesn't have a copy, although he says he really doesn't have the space for it.
"That's a lifetime ago," said Pedersen, now 80 years old. "I keep telling some of my colleagues, 'That damn ball's going to follow me to my grave!'"
"I think for a lot of these individuals, letting go of these brands is hard. Change is tough," said Dettore.
"In one case, they actually dropped one and it shattered," said Cooper. "They laid it on a flatbed. It crumbled on its own weight. Its hollow inside. You don't have to destroy them as you take them away."
Perhaps there's some comfort to be taken in the ConocoPhillips statement, "We appreciate motorists' loyalty to the orange and blue ball, and hope they will continue to use ConocoPhillips' gasolines and motor products. Though our look is a little different, the quality of our products and our commitment to our customers remains the same."
And when the last ball has dropped, there will still always be the unanswered mystery of why the number 76. None of our experts were able to give a certified answer to that question.
"I think the time to move on has happened. CP isn't going to change their mind," said Speckman. "One thing, though, I am convinced of in my 34 years -- the majority of the people go where the cheapest price is, whether it's a Pegasus, a big Shell, an Arco, a Techron additive or just Costco. Loyalty went out the window years ago."