This paper examines the issue of billboard advertising from the premise that it is a feature of modern American life that needs to be regulated by the federal government. It examines the history of such regulation as has already been enacted. It examines the effects of those regulations. It also examines the attitude of the public toward outdoor advertising, particularly billboards. And it gives some supporting case histories regarding the effect of billboards on citizens' lives.
And it makes comments on the possible adjuncts to billboard advertising such as hot-air balloons. The sources used included federal government websites, websites of organizations working in the field of billboard regulation, a large West Coast newspaper, and an international magazine published in the U.K. about France, as well as a U.S. media publication.
Billboard Advertising: "Litter on a Stick?"
Without the automobile, there would have been no need for advertising billboards, although they might have given people walking to visit a friend or trotting a 12-mph-horse to town something to do. Plus, they could have looked at those 'messages' a lot longer than can people speeding by at 60-plus miles per hour.
Still, advertising depends on a lot of people seeing the advertiser's message so that the expense of broadcasting that message to potential buyers will be repaid, and profit made as well. So, it took not only the invention of the automobile and roads, but achieving a critical mass of people owning and traveling in automobiles to make billboards a reasonable means of advertising products and services.
Although it could hardly be said that every family had a car in the 1920s, there were enough cars on enough roads to start the outdoor advertising industry. Among the early users of billboards was Burma Shave.
Burma Shave used relatively small billboards, placed sequentially next to a roadway, to deliver its message a phrase at a time. According the Web site The Third Age, it became one of the "greatest marketing campaigns in history."
Here's an example of a typical Burma Shave sequential ad: (Third Age Web site.) bearded lady
Tried a jar
She's now famous
The signs themselves were nowhere near the building-size displays of today, and they had the dual charms of being both short and amusing. In other words, it might be fair to say that most people would consider them memorable without being obnoxious.
Another early form of outdoor advertising depended on painting the advertiser's message on the sides of already standing barns. An example of this still exists. A barn on the interstate between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn., still advises travelers to "See Rock City." Not everyone wanted his or her barn painted, even for a bit of cash, so it was unlikely such signs would become ubiquitous, leaving those, too, more firmly in the 'charming' category than the repellent one.
American Safety Razor, Inc., which is once again selling Burma Shave creams, lotions and razors -- this time in Wal-Mart stores, which didn't exist in the 1920s -- has not so far reinstated the little roadside signs. That may be wise; billboards have come under attack in the press, and by government for more than four decades, as blight on the landscape.
Research reveals more distaste for billboards among the public than appreciation of them.
This was revealed in the 1990s by several opinion polls conducted by: EPIC MRA; Fleming and Associates; Institute for Public Opinion Research, Florida International University; University of New Hampshire, and; Telesurveys Research Associates. All were reported by Scenic America, an organization "dedicated solely to protecting natural beauty and distinctive community character." (Scenic.org home page.)
Here are some of those findings:
By a 10 to 1 margin, Floridians prefer reducing the number of billboards.
64% of the citizens in New Hampshire oppose to billboard advertising on highways.
62% of Rhode Islanders state that billboards make state roads less attractive; 31% felt it made no difference.
79% of Houstonians support maintaining or strengthening the city's ordinance removing ALL billboards by 2013.
69% of Missourians believe that fewer billboards would make their state more attractive to tourists: just 26% disagreed. (Scenic America Web site, Fact 5-page)
Despite the fact that it is clear from these surveys that a majority of Americans don't like billboards, advertisers would argue that that is beside the point; whether they like the signs or not, the billboards deliver useful, desired information, the advertisers say.
Not so counters Scenic America: "72% of those surveyed in a Rhode Island study responded that they received either very little or no useful information about products and services from billboards."
Scenic America Web site, Fact 5-page)
Organizations such as Scenic America have been founded to encourage the federal and state and local governments to do more to restrict billboards -- and even to tear existing billboards down -- than has been done in federal legislation beginning in the late 1950s. Other anti-billboard organizations include the 'green organizations' nationwide, and others such as badads.com. Scenic America is, however, one of the most active organizations. It not only lobbies against billboard use; it has complied significant statistics to support its claims.
Researchers also give billboards low marks for effectiveness. (No research has been done as yet on the effects of interactive billboards that have popped up in the past few years.)
And so, with typical ingenuity, U.S. advertising has come up with other ways to advertise to people out and about and going about their business. Today, outdoor advertising includes hot air balloons high in the sky, small planes trailing banners above beaches, and inflatable 'logo' objects placed where they are supposed to have the greatest effect (and, being removable, they come under different ordinances and laws than billboards). So far, there is not much being said, reported or studied about the alternatives. Billboards, on the other hand, are a fit subject for discussion, with disparate voices, from the 'greens' to William F. Buckley, lending voice to their concerns.
Billboards on the hot seat
Billboards are the oldest modern form of outdoor advertising, and, despite legislation limiting them, the most prevalent.
Scenic America keeps statistics on U.S. billboards, some of which are surprising. According to the group, between 5,000 and 15,000 new billboards are added to the landscape nationally each year, despite the fact that four states and a couple of localities prohibit billboards completely. Those are: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont, plus Boulder, Colo., and Fairfax County, Va. In addition, more than 100 communities in Texas, and more than 200 communities in Florida have 'grandfathered' existing billboards but prohibit new construction. (Scenic America Web site, Fact 12 screen.)
And that, according to Scenic America, is the good news for a public that Scenic America says doesn't like billboards. Here's the bad news for the industry that would like to keep those house-size signs a-building:
There are more than 500,000 billboards on major highways (estimated).
The industry is worth only an estimated $1.8 billion a year.
The industry, nationwide, employs fewer than 15,000, so it provides little employment in any given community.
Communities with tough billboard controls have suffered NO economic consequences.
Scenic America says that the U.S. has a billboard problem today because The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 (HBA), which expanded the 1958 legislation, doesn't work. Scenic America also points out that the act adds insult to injury. The act is, the group says, "the only federal environmental regulation that requires taxpayers to pay the polluter to stop polluting. Loopholes have made the HBA little more than a Billboard Protection and Proliferation Act."
Scenic America says the act fails in two ways:
The HBA allows billboards to be erected virtually everywhere -- in any commercial/industrial area adjacent to interstate and federal-aid primary highways.
The HBA makes it virtually impossible to remove nonconforming billboards.
A further problem arises in defining just what is commercial/industrial activity. The group says a single general store could generate six 1,200-foot-square billboards. (The group also points out, elsewhere on its Web site, that most single-family homes in the U.S. are not much more than 1,200 square feet.)
The group says it has heard reports that sign companies have built bogus business just to get the right to build the big bunch of big signs.
As far as getting non-conforming signs removed, the group says the idea of amortization -- in short, to let the signs live out a 5-8-year useful life so the sign company could recoup its investment -- was fairly sound, and fairly fair. But the sign companies wanted more, and convinced Congress, in 1978, to prohibit amortization along interstates and primary federal-aid supported highways. This meant, in effect, that the HBA would protect the very signs it was meant to remove eventually. Scenic America says that:
According to the Federal Highway Administration, the prohibition of amortization has kept over 38,000 billboards standing despite local ordinances seeking to remove them. No one knows how much removal would cost. So far…