Skip to main content

Billboards – do you love them or hate them?

As a copywriter, I’ve been asked that question many times. When you have to work with a static medium that is physically huge, optically small and the audience is flying by at 65 mph, it can be a challenge. But creative hurdles can be serious opportunities. When you’re forced to work with tight restrictions, crazy things can happen. It’s the MacGyver theory – you’ve got a paperclip, some antacid and a ballpoint pen…see what you can come up with. There’s a fantastic book that I highly recommend by Ernie Schenk all about using constraints to drive innovative thinking, and it certainly applies to your friendly neighborhood billboard.

So as a copywriter, I see the appeal. It’s a medium you love to hate. When you can crack a billboard with a short, punchy, memorable line of copy (and the client buys it) it creates a sensation similar to fitting into your goal jeans, or discovering your high school rival is now bald.

But take me out of the advertising industry, plop me down in 5:30 traffic like a “normal” person, and I will tell you, “I hate billboards.” I mean it. I really do. I loathe them. Always have, always will.

Has one ever made me smile? Sure. Has one ever told me that the place I want to go is at the next exit? Maybe. But for the most part they have added zero value to my life. In fact, they’ve taken value away.

Let me make my case.

Advertising is part of a social contract. We often talk about “our audience” and how we can “breakthrough the clutter.” At best, we rent our audiences. Your commercial running during The Bachelorette, that’s not your audience, it’s The Bachelorette’s audience. And the clutter…that’s your ad, and the ad next to it.

But people accept advertising as part of the social contract. They know it’s what pays the bills and allows them to see the drama between Jed and Hannah unfold. Same with radio stations, magazines, websites, podcasts, movies, videogames…the list goes on until it slams into a dead-end with billboards.

With a few exceptions, billboards do not contribute to society. They do not offset the cost of road construction, road repair or street lights. They don’t help clean up roadside litter. In fact, they create visual pollution and rob passersby of a beautiful skyline. There are four states that have banned billboards altogether:

  • Hawaii, since the 1920s
  • Vermont, since the 1970s
  • Maine, since the 1980s
  • Alaska, since 1998

And if you’re thinking those are all beautiful places that would be great to take a road trip, you get my point.

Now, does this mean I will never help a client with a billboard? No. I might attempt to dissuade them, but if it’s the right thing to do from a media strategy perspective, and it aligns with the brand, I’m on board.

But what it does mean is that I will do my creative best, and I will push everyone involved to ensure that billboard makes people smile, cry, think differently, get goosebumps or otherwise give them something they didn’t have before they drove by at 65 mph. Because while we’re renting the billboard space, we’re not renting the audience. We have to earn it.