Travel Tuesdays - Show Me a Sign

Welcome to “Travel Tuesdays,” a resource for those whose plans have been deferred and a distraction for people who enjoy armchair travel.  Each week we’ll suggest a virtual destination for you to visit.

All of these ideas are curated and brought to you by Lorraine Rubinacci!

To read Lorraine's archived posts, visit this page.


Travel Tuesdays, April 27, 2021 - "Show Me a Sign"

If, for some travelers, the journey is more important than the destination, for marketers that journey offers a golden opportunity to capture a customer’s attention.  Many modes of transportation offer advertising possibilities -- buses, subways, airports, and more -- but the grandest ads, billboards, developed alongside automobile culture.  Businesses had used large advertisements in the 19th century, but the billboard as we know it grew with America’s expanding road system.  The description of Great American Billboards:  100 Years of History by the Side of the Road phrases it this way, “. . . American manufacturers and retailers discovered miles and miles of new advertising space, and the audaciously oversized billboard was born.” 

To be seen at highway speeds, billboards need to be large.  Lamar Advertising Company, a major player in this field, describes the dimensions and applications of its four products:  Bulletins, Posters, Jr. Posters, and Wallscapes.  The largest category, the bulletin, is “14 feet high and 48 feet wide.”  The standardization of sizes encouraged mass production of ads, which further increased their use.  A brief history of the billboard can be found on the website of the OAAA (The Out of Home Advertising Association of America).  Not surprisingly, it reflects the industry’s viewpoints and priorities.  More history, and numerous illustrations, can be found in the aforementioned Great American Billboards, a book that can be acquired through the SAILS library network.


A different kind of visual history may be found at Billboards of the Past, a dealer of vintage billboard art.  This company offers “original new old stock” from the mid forties through the mid sixties for personal and business use.  Here are two examples:

Credit: Billboards of the Past

Credit: Billboards of the Past

Customers install them in restaurants, living rooms, car showrooms, museums, and other buildings where a nostalgic ambience is desired.  Prices for the above examples are $2000 and $2500 respectively.  While smaller than “bulletins,” these displays average 19.5 x 8.5 feet.  If you don’t have a big room, you can still enjoy window shopping on their website which includes categories such as food, appliances, tobacco, and, all-important to motorists, gas.

Despite these quaint images, it would be incorrect to conclude that billboards are obsolete.  Estimates of the current number of US billboards vary widely, depending on who is counting and how one defines the term, but one measure is the OAAA’s assessment.  They tally over 340,000 billboards not counting all other out-of-home displays.  Moreover, billboards keep adapting not only to new products but also to contemporary style and technology.  Since their introduction in 2005, digital billboards (like all other digital products) have proliferated.  The graphic design platform, Canva, offers a nice overview of current trends in its article, “50 brilliant billboard ads that will stop you in your tracks (and what you can learn from them).”  The Craftsman billboard illustrates the concept of a 3D extension, a specially-fabricated object that augments the flat, rectangular display area.

Craftsman billboard (via Canva)

This ad for the film, The Day After Tomorrow, shows the potential of an unorthodox location.

The Day After Tomorrow billboard

Credit: Ads of the World (via Canva)


Other engaging examples surprise the viewer through the use of unusual materials, motion, or interaction.

Indeed, a 2016 article in Wired describes the billboard’s popularity in a seemingly anachronistic place:  Silicon Valley, where it is used to promote cutting-edge technology to people who already use it.  “It's OK if You Don't Understand the Billboards of Silicon Valley” is a hilarious examination of targeted marketing, where only a very specific customer could understand the ads. The article’s first example is shown below.  Of course, it assumes that the viewer will need a cloud communication platform and that he or she has a developer on standby, ready to explain.  Ask your doctor, ask your grocer, ask your . . . developer?

Twilio Billboard

Credit:  Christie Hemm Klok, Wired

Another recent trend is the use of billboards by nonprofit groups promoting public art.  Since 2015, The Billboard Creative has been pairing the work of artists with empty billboard space in Los Angeles, thereby creating an open-air gallery.  Similarly, Save Art Space exhibits the work of “underprivileged and emerging artists” on billboards in multiple large cities throughout the US.  Here is a two-minute video which summarizes their project.

Credit: The Billboard Creative, 2020

Of course, billboards have long had their detractors -- and still do.  There have been controversies involving tobacco, alcohol, and now cannabis.  Back in 1965 the Federal government passed the Highway Beautification Act to regulate billboard advertising along interstate highways.  Four states have banned all billboards from their roads.  Since the early ‘80s, the nonprofit Scenic America has worked “to safeguard the scenic qualities of America’s roadways, countryside, and communities.”  This organization believes that billboards hurt tourism by damaging a community’s scenic beauty, and they lower property values, target minority and low-income neighborhoods, and pose driver safety concerns.  It also challenges the assumption that billboards are a beleaguered industry that mostly supports small businesses.  More than half of the country’s billboards are controlled by three major advertising agencies, and the industry’s profits in 2019 totalled 8.6 billion dollars.  Despite their small-town reputation, billboards are heavily utilized by large corporations including McDonald’s, Apple, and Geico.  Check here for last year’s top 20 advertisers.

In recent years, the increased use of digital billboards has generated new tensions because of the light pollution they create.  This past February, a proposed change in Utah’s billboard laws, which would have allowed digital displays to proliferate, met opposition from citizens and local governments.  From my perspective, there is too much light and visual pollution already. I’m not nostalgic for the days when roads looked like this.

Billboards and Advertising Clutter Roadside

National Archives at College Park, Public domain

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