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Red is under attack. More precisely, signs with more than half of their background in red are being prohibited as the Seoul Metropolitan Government attempts to spruce up the city.

The streets of Seoul are crowded with signboards screaming for attention. On some buildings, the signs are plastered over the entire facade in eye-catching colors - mostly red. For example, a bulgogi restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a pharmacy and a language institute, all housed in the same building, would almost invariably have dominant red signs on the exterior walls of the floors they occupy, making the building one huge red canvass.

Alarmed that the whole city was being painted red, the city government came up with an ordinance two years ago that bans outdoor signs of more than five square meters from having the color red take up more than half of its background, or the space excluding the lettering.

"The entire city of Seoul will turn red if the signs aren't regulated," said Kim Eun-deog, a city official involved in regulating billboards. It's natural that businesses use loud colors to attract attention, but overdoing it is ruining the city visually, he explained.

Although the city cannot remove the offending signs because it lacks the necessary manpower, the gu, or district, offices can refuse to issue new sign permits. Businesses are required to renew sign permits at their local gu office every three years. If a business doesn't take down a sign after the applicable permit has been denied, it faces twice-yearly fines of up to 500,000 won ($390). Businesses can appeal for exceptions to the rule, in which case a review committee composed of experts in the related fields such as environmental design and the arts makes the decision.

SK Group is one conglomerate that is particularly concerned about the red-directed regulations. "If a sign in Apgujeong-dong comes up for permit renewal or a new gas station has opened there, we apply for an exception with the Gangnam-gu district office," said Jeon Deog-soo at SK Group.

"This involves preparing documents arguing our case for the use of our logo," Mr. Jeon said. SK, with its 64 subsidiaries, launched a new corporate identity program a few years ago with a new logo that is predominantly red with white letters. Gas stations operated by SK, for example, have red canopies with white lettering.

The company claims that changing the signs at its gas stations alone would cost 30 billion won. "We changed our identity to earn customers' trust and improve our competitiveness," Mr. Jeon said. "It would be irrational to revise it."

He finds unacceptable the city's argument that red makes the city unsightly. "I'm sure that the people who designed our logo considered the impact of the color on the environment," he said.

For the moment, SK companies are dealing with the matter case-by-case, which is a cumbersome process since they need to appeal to each gu office concerned. "There are 25 gus in Seoul; it would be more manageable if there were one central processing body," Mr. Jeon said.

The city says that the authority to issue permits is given to the gu offices so the rule can be applied flexibly. "If an exception is applied for in a commercial area it will likely be granted," said Mr. Kim at the city government. "But if it's in a residential area it would be a different matter."

Applying for exceptions has become so time-consuming that each SK subsidiary has a marketing official in charge of the matter.

"It seems like regulation for the sake of regulation," Mr. Jeon claimed, citing as an example the lack of a clear standard on just what kind of red is regulated. Rather than just looking at the color, he urged the city to look at the general design of a billboard.

Experts agree that designs are important in judging the environmental impact of signs, but some defend the city's decision. "Ideally, the use of colors should be regulated, particularly with respect to the purity of the color and the shade," said Park Young-soon, professor of human environment and design at Yonsei University, Seoul.

"Red is a good color that can be useful and can be used beautifully," she said. But the color is overused by businesses here as they compete for attention, without any consideration to the design, she said. "The result is very jarring, not in harmony with the surroundings."

So much red is creating an atmosphere that runs counter to the image the city is trying to create. "Is rampant commercialism and blinding dizziness the image we would like to project?" Ms. Park asked, emphasizing the capital's 600-year history and the city's attempt to promote itself as a comfortable place to live.

Meanwhile, there are moves by some companies to comply with the ordinance. Although many of the multinational corporations, particularly the fast-food giants that use uniform brand logos globally, initially balked at the regulation, they are devising ways to accommodate the rule.

The McDonald's restaurant that opened in Jeong-dong, downtown Seoul last month has a sign that is a departure from the company's familiar white lettering on a red background. The new sign has noticeably less red, in the form of a narrow band, over which larger white letters are superimposed. The overall effect is that the white letters stand out with the red band standing subtly in the background.

"It's our experiment at meeting the city's requirement," said Nam Hwa-yeon, public relations manager at McDonald's Korea.

Most people visiting the restaurant on a recent Thursday afternoon had not noticed the change. "I never saw anything different," said Lee Mi-sook, an office worker in the area who had been to the restaurant a number of times. An employee at the restaurant, Choi Jong-guk, said that he hadn't seen any customers mention it.

That is just as well since to noticeably change the signs would have been tantamount to tempering with the brand image, according to Ms. Nam. As for changing signs and billboards at the chain's other 289 outlets in Korea, nothing has been decided, she said, explaining, "We are still looking into the impact of the new sign."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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