Signs of the Times

Justified — This sign seems planned to remind North Carolina motorists why it should remain standing during tough economic times.

Perpetual Notions
by Ronald Sitton

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Aug. 3) — You see them every day on your way to and from work, the grocery store, the library, the pool, the folks … but you might not “notice” them except for the occasional message.

In the late 1990s, “Got Milk?” grabbed the attention of passing American motorists before becoming a world-wide campaign. Without knowing the actual returns on investment, it seems the milk industry fared much better than the pork industry’s “The Other White Meat” and “Beef – It’s what’s for dinner” (note: the beef billboards apparently spawned a PETA/vegetarian response).

Around the nation, recession billboards ask Americans to lighten up. Some of you may remember the racy Calvin Klein ads of the late ’80s, but apparently the company’s newest billboards even messes with New Yorkers. Someone found the time to make a Web site commemorating crazy and funny billboards for the bored to enjoy. But not all billboards are funny:

It’s hard to understand the logic behind the use of some billboards.

File Photo
Priorities — Stop to see where the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker might be, but what about where Louis Jordan was? (File Photo)

In Kevin Clark’s documentary “Is You Is: A Louis Jordan Story,” Arkansongs dee-jay Stephen Koch tells of childhood expectations of seeing a statue of the legendary Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame honoree noting his hometown of Brinkley, Ark.

Instead he found a lot of promotion for the re-discovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker — but not one billboard tells passing travelers about Jordan. Wouldn’t it be better to attract as many travelers as possible during tough economic times, especially when located on a busy Interstate?

Perhaps even crazier: billboards on I-40 westbound promote investment opportunities in Brinkley … right after you pass the Brinkley exit with the next exit nowhere in sight.

Of course now, it’s not enough to have a static sign breaking the scenic view as you drive America’s highways and byways. Electronic and digital billboards are becoming all the rage. Even the FBI understands how useful they can be with the ability to update as needed. Are they safe? The federal Highway Administration sure seems to think so, especially when they sit in congested areas that give drivers time to sit and watch them.

Some claim business forays into social media represent nothing more than electronic billboards, but somebody’s watching. And just when you thought it was safe to go out in the water again … amphibious billboards! What’s next? Billboards in space?

But billboards aren’t just for business anymore.

GOD, Politics and Education

I’ll never forget driving to Knoxville from Clinton, Tenn., and seeing:

“That ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ thing … I meant that.” – God

Apparently, a non-denominational anonymous donor started that campaign. Halfway across the world, the Church of Singapore ran these to get more people to attend church on Sunday.

Some would say religion wouldn’t be religion if there wasn’t some controversy. You expect atheists to question God’s existence, but what about this campaign to “challenge the mindset of a new generation of church goers”? I prefer the approach of The Foundation for Life, whose “Pass It On” series hits really hard.

When it comes to politics, sometimes it’s tough to tell who’s selling what. It seems some folks still can’t get over Barack Obama’s election (BTW, Obama’s supposed to be good for the billboard industry, which may explain why three major advertisers opposed the campaign, leading to accusations that CBS violates free speech with its billboards.).  These obviously didn’t help Hillary, but these apparently backfired on the Republicans.

Of course, it could be worse. These in Lebanon completely overtake the countryside. This reminds everyone in Cuba about Abu Ghraib and seems to compare America to the Nazis. From the photo caption, it seems to be in the American embassy. I wonder if it prompted this.

I find it interesting that more and more billboards advertise educational opportunities. We can do worse than suggesting our populace educate itself in hopes of better employment opportunities.

I understand academic institutions using billboards to let would-be students know about their options. But I found it amazing in eastern North Carolina to see three billboards within 150 yards advertising the same degree from a university in the western part of the state. Doesn’t academia need to keep its eye on the bottom dollar during these troubled economic times? Did they get a deal? If so, why put them right next to each other?

Even more troubling, should higher education pay for billboards promoting their athletic teams? In Kentucky, UK officials launched a singing billboard to provide the Wildcat fight song to passing motorists; a Web site promoting the fight song features the billboards.

More recently, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin told SEC media that a UT billboard would appear in Florida (a Knoxville columnist and blogger offered suggestions for the message). Looks like they’ll also be going up in Atlanta.

Time to Question — This Tennessee billboard will appear in Atlanta, but Auburn got there first. With so much of ESPN’s money going to the SEC, is it just a matter of time until every school is represented in the city that hosts the conference championship game?

Will history record this as just another instance of the Southeast Conference outspending their BCS brethren? Guess they’ve got to spend that television money somewhere. I probably wouldn’t care as much if the Razorbacks had a “Bobby”-board, though I know my wife would have a fit if the Razorback fight song came on every time we passed a billboard.

South Carolina’s Seventh Wonder

My favorite billboards lead to South of the Border, which sits just below the North Carolina-South Carolina state line. It’s a pitch with kitsch.

We’re driving from Atlanta to Atlantic Beach one summer and it’s getting kind of late when I notice this billboard that says, “If you miss us, be sure to write.” I’m rollin’ so there’s no time to take down the address. But do people actually stop and write it down?

I thought it was odd, but it seemed sane compared to those following every few miles, each advertising Pedro‘s. On one, a cow jumped over the moon through some mechanical device. On another, a wrecked ’64 Mustang hangs on the edge of the billboard. Though now I know there’s been controversy, at the time I just wondered if the locals were just used to them.

After awhile, we looked forward to each successive sign. Once we were laughing so hard I nearly drove off the road (of course it could also have been that we were still driving as midnight came and went). About three miles from the North/South Carolina border, we hugged the corner and stared in disbelief at the neon sombrero lighting up the sky. I started laughing, Tanya starts laughing, Trevor joins in and we had to get off the Interstate.

Neon lit up everything; we drove around with our jaws dropping. We took photos next to the life-size replicas of different animals and – of course – Pedro. Just like typical tourists, we bought stuff: hats for each of us and even a $1 booklet commemorating the billboards because it’s one thing to hear about them, but another thing altogether to see them. Still, not everyone appreciates them. ;)

Attraction or Nuisance? — Considering you cannot find a Sambo’s in the South anymore, one wonder’s how long until a controversy bigger than language sidetracks Pedro’s. But then again, it’s located in South Carolina.

Squeezing Out the Small Guy?

During a holiday trip to Lakeland, Fla., I did a double-take the first time I saw a billboard hawking the latest prime-time television show. This Mississippi billboard prominently displayed an African-American comedy series, which is something I hadn’t seen in the South.

I wanted to celebrate society’s moving forward, but at the same time I noticed the billboard was owned by CBS – yeah, the same television station that brought us Walter Cronkite back in the day.

As I started paying more attention, I noticed a lot of the billboards in the future I-22 corridor were owned by a media conglomerate of some sort (according to an outdoorbillboard.com forum, railroads and storage facilities own the most land that hosts billboards).

In Arkansas, I remember seeing billboards owned by Donrey or Lamar, so it struck me as odd that the big boys wanted these Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida billboards. Did they expect to make more money by branding more things in the public eye? Was this nationwide or only in the South? From what I can tell, it seems to be happening everywhere.

Next I started noticing that when these billboards were empty, they weren’t really empty, i.e. the companies put up advertisements for advertisements. Instead of the standard “Available” with a corresponding phone number, now they were getting cutesy, e.g. a big picture of a gecko (or somethin’ similar) staring at me, and it ain’t Geico. Others grabbed my attention while chiding me, “Hey, I caught you looking.” I wanted to say, “So? Is this a bar scene or a highway?” But people might think it’s crazy to talk back to a billboard.

Still, I stopped to photograph one that made me smile.

Workin’ hard or hardly workin’? — I often use this picture taken on a trip to Florida for my desktop during the busy portions of the academic year. It reminds folks that I’m working although it might not look like I’m working. ;)

I’d Rather See …

As we traveled this summer, I’ve noticed more and more empty billboards. At least the big boys were running advertisements for business; otherwise skeletons appeared by the highways and interstates as we drove to Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Richmond and the Outer Banks. Some of the old wooden ones looked like they could fall down.

Bigger questions remain: Why aren’t more businesses advertising on billboards? Do they expect to make money without telling the world about their wares? Is this indicative of a failing economy, i.e. when advertisers quit spending money to entice people, will all media suffer? Is this why outdoor advertising became available to the common man this weekend?

If more people are going online to shop, are we eliminating the need for these huge eyesores that often completely dominate the surrounding landscape? Couldn’t those talents be put to better use making Web banners? If you look at the billboards I’ve posted, they look pretty good on the page and would be a great help with design. Can’t you imagine every SEC football fan having their favorite school banner posted on their homepage?

In any capitalistic venture, dead weight decomposes and allows other things to thrive. We can all agree the decrepit wooden billboards on the side of the road and the illegal billboards need to go. Traveling the region, it’s obvious we get nearly all the advertising we need when the state shows what local businesses are available at each exit. Do we really need more space for signs to divide us?

Take advantage of this economic downturn, get rid of the old eyesores and let the public see more of America’s beauty. Apologies to The Foundation of Life, but maybe it’s time to quit degrading the countryside and figure out how to “Pass It On.”