Billboard Jungle: Chicago Divorce Ad Comes Down

Lawyer defends her sign; local pol orders sign be taken down.

May 9, 2007 — -- The woman behind the nation's most controversial divorce billboard defended herself and her ad Tuesday night in an interview with ABC News, while across town a politician on his last day in office ordered that the sign be taken down because of a lack of a permit.

The ad, a 20-foot-high billboard reading "Life is Short. Get a Divorce," sparked a viscerally negative reaction from lawyers, marriage counselors and the public. It seemed everybody had something to say about the sign perched above a trendy Chicago neighborhood -- even the ladies from the "The View" sounded off on the sign.

Corri Fetman, a partner at Fetman, Garland & Associates, the law firm advertised on the sign, is still bemused by the buzz.

"No one's going to go outside, see a billboard and say, 'Oh my God, you know, I'm going home and having a divorce," Fetman told ABC News' senior Law & Justice correspondent Jim Avila on "Good Morning America'' Tuesday.

Fetman said the sign was "supposed to be lighthearted. It's supposed to be thought provoking, and it's supposed to not be boring like law firm advertising is. It sends a message -- that's what advertising does. Advertising sends a message and gets your name out there. And we've done both."

"We are absolutely not trivializing [marriage]," Fetman said.

Billboard Obvious to Bar Patrons, Partyers

Fetman acknowledged that the billboard had been placed above an area of pricey bars and restaurants known as the "Gold Coast," where younger women are known to go to meet older, affluent men.

"When you're out partying, you're escaping. You're escaping from reality. What are you going to do when you escape from reality? You're going to talk to your friends about your problems. You're going to say, 'Hey, I'm not happy. Here's what's going on.'"

She said the ad was "no different from any motivational book that says live your best life."

But not everyone saw it in such a positive light. Fetman said she had received death threats and voice mails calling her Satan.

"That serious? They want to kill you," Avila asked her.

"Yes!" she said, giggling. "Me!"

Billboard Comes Down

Tuesday evening in Chicago, as ABC News camera crews filmed the billboard, workers began to take it down. Fetman said she had no idea why.

Calls went out to local politicians, to the company who had erected the billboard and to the parking garage where the sign had been hung.

ABC News received a voice mail Tuesday night from outgoing Chicago Alderman Burton Natarus, whose successor is being sworn in this morning.

Natarus said the sign had been taken down because "they didn't have a permit." Natarus said "it had nothing to do with the content or representations. … The issue is very simple."

He said that he didn't know "if they will ever get a permit in light of what happened."

"It will have to be solved by my successor. … Nice talking to you and God bless."

'Grotesque' or Just Good Marketing?

As word of the billboard spread through Chicago and across the nation this week, lawyers and counselors were incensed.

"It's grotesque," said John Ducanto, past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "It's totally undignified and offensive."

"It trivializes divorce and I think it's absolutely disgusting," said Rick Tivers, a clinical social worker at the Center for Divorce Recovery in Chicago.

Veteran New York divorce lawyer Rauol Felder called the billboard "the Academy Award of bad taste. … I don't think anybody walks away from that ad thinking more of the legal profession than they did before they saw it."

The Women's Bar of Illinois said the ad was "in bad taste."

Fetman seemed to find her strongest support in cyberspace.

"I love it!" one reader wrote on a message board for the story. "Kudos to the firm and the marketing idea! As an attorney, I am not at ALL offended by this billboard. Frankly, I find it refreshingly honest and insightful. Hey, it's true -- if people are unhappy, there are plenty of options out there -- get a divorce and get on with your life. Plus, given the fact that it takes the average battered woman leaving her spouse FOUR times before she finally leaves for good, maybe this in-your-face simple approach may be the wake up call she needs. Two enthusiastic thumbs up!"

Others said they felt like they were being fleeced.

"The implication here is that both men and women have an equal chance at the fornication sweepstakes once they dump their middle-aged spouses. NOT TRUE! But if the billboard showed a greying, well-dressed, prosperous-looking man drinking champagne with a twenty-something hootchie … then you'd have real truth in advertising!"

And one seemed to speak for many.

"For those that [think] that this is so clever and humorous, how about placing a 5 year old girl and an 8 year old boy in the background clutching daddy as he is leaving the house? Now maybe you get why this 'ad' is so inappropriate. If divorce just involved kidless twenty somethings who decided that they were bored and wanting to 'trade up' after a year of marriage, then the ad might have some acceptability, but these generally aren't the types of people that divorce involves."

"It's when you get to that part of the marriage where you begin to understand that having a good, long term relationship with one person -- especially when you have kids -- takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice, that thoughts of divorce start to enter the picture."

Elizabeth Tribolet and Mary Harris contributed to this report.