The Call of the Billboard

The roadside battle for people’s attention has been raging for more than a century. An Object Lesson.

Mark Makela / Stringer / Getty

You can download the blueprint for the world’s first “sweating” billboard online. And for about $280, you can build it, too. The Mosquito Killer Billboard, designed and launched by Brazilian ad agencies Posterscope and NBS, lures bugs with a haze of fluorescent lights and an airborne lactic acid solution that mimics the smell of human sweat and the CO2 in human breath. Killing mosquitos is a big priority in Brazil this summer. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently responded to a letter sent by 150 global health experts calling for August’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro to be delayed or moved in light of the Zika virus outbreak. WHO’s verdict: the virus is a global emergency, but holding the games should not worsen transmission. Like mosquitos, spectators likely will swarm Rio as planned.

Sweating billboards are an unlikely ally, but they might help draw in the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitos from as far as four kilometers away. After duping the sweat-drunk insects into thinking they have found a human body, fans blow the bugs into glass chambers, where they eventually die of dehydration, their wiry bodies piling up as evidence for passersby. Beyond stockpiling insect carcasses, these billboards are also notable for what that they are not doing: selling products. The only thing the signs advertise is themselves. And the agencies behind the Mosquito Killer Billboard have made it a point to be non-commercial, freely distributing the blueprints under Creative Commons license and banning advertisements on the signs.

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Billboards normally call humans to commerce rather than insects to death. But their usual work often goes as unnoticed to people as to mosquitos. Billboards are so common it can be easy to stop seeing them entirely—until the draw of the products they depict appears later. Writing for The New York Review of Books in October 2014, Zadie Smith noted a billboard across the street from her Soho apartment: “Whatever’s on that wall is my view. … It has a subliminal effect. Last semester it was a spot for high-end vodka, and while I wrangled children into their snowsuits, chock-full of domestic resentment, I’d find myself dreaming of cold martinis.”

According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), the first modern-scale advertisement was an 1835 circus poster. It was a curiosity. It took until the post-Civil War era for advertisers to gain the technology to match the scale of their ambitions. Aided by paper-folding machines, stereotyping, and lithographic printing, advertisers started leasing sign space, and a labor force of board-painters soon followed.

Amidst rapid industrialization and urbanization, the industry soon trumpeted the needs and wants of Americans from the sides of grain elevators, barns, and other private buildings. And by 1899, the largest sign in the world hawked Lea & Perrins’ Sauce—only 16 feet high, but sprawling for more than four-tenths of a mile along the Erie Basin Breakwater facing New York Bay. A decade later, a speaker at the Associated Billposters of the United States and Canada convention announced, if laid end-to-end, the nation’s billboards would stretch almost 1,610 miles, just longer than the eastern coastline from Florida to Maine. He “conservatively” estimated that investments in the management of the boards had surpassed $100 million.

The line between selling a product and selling a lifestyle is slim. Good advertising offers a daydream, attainable, in theory anyway, for the right price. Newspaper ads sowed only the dreams of the literate, but billboards were viewed as podiums by which marketers could reach the (perhaps illiterate) everyman. Since their early days, these signs have often conflated societal vices like tobacco, alcohol, and entertainment with subliminal promises for better sex, whiter teeth, and glossier memories. One early critic asserted that the signs “constantly suggest to the boys the use of firearms in violent scenes, and it is a common sight to see children standing open-mouthed before these baleful exhibitions.” Billboards are democratic invitations, tickets to Dionysian adventure and Hedonistic romps. Like mosquitos, people are drawn in without knowing it.

Taking a cue from the English Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising, American anti-billboard reformers quickly organized against this assault, with the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., helming early efforts. The signs concealed piles of litter, blocked sunlight, distracted from the scenery, and “obtrude[d] all sorts of sordid ideas upon the mind,” Olmsted wrote in 1900. Beyond moral objections, anti-billboard activists seized on the practical effrontery of the signs, as when wooden boards atop San Francisco’s buildings helped conduct the city’s disastrous 1906 fire, or when a “bloodthirsty billboard” tipped and injured pedestrians in Kansas City in 1905, as reported by The Kansas City Journal.

But reformists proved weak against the billboard lobby, which included not just sign owners, advertisers, and the union members who constructed and painted the signs, but also the motels, service stations, and tourist stops that were dependent on catching the attention of motorists. Even politicians were wary to speak out against billboards, which they knew had become key to any successful campaign. And billposters were quick to read the vehement anti-billboard op-eds printed in newspapers and magazines as mere affirmation that they had cornered the market and lured advertisers away from print media.

Effective federal regulation of billboards didn’t arrive until the 1960s, when first lady Lady Bird Johnson began witnessing a changing landscape on her drives between Texas and Washington, D.C. If commercial billboards are an offer of capitalism at its most ambitious and promising, junkyards and abandoned warehouses are their opposite, the derailed symbols of post-war industry. As her husband entered his second term, Lady Bird devoted herself to the aesthetic betterment of what writer David Louter calls the “windshield wilderness.”

When it finally passed, the much-diluted Highway Beautification Act of 1965—dubbed “Lady Bird’s Beauty Bill”—limited federal road signs to commercial and industrial areas, and required that states pay “just compensation” for the removal of non-conforming signs that had been lawfully erected. Soon after, a billboard appeared in Montana demanding the “impeachment of Lady Bird.” Meanwhile, the bill sparked unintended consequences. Its passage coincided with the construction of the new Interstate system, and as the old U.S. highway system was dismantled, independent businesses that had once lured drivers in with billboards were suddenly at a disadvantage, outpaced by national chains that could afford to build at the new freeway exits.

If individual businesses suffered, the wider billboard industry was far from shaken by Lady Bird’s bill. Profit may have driven the industry, but its success hinged on non-economic functions as well. World War I offered a chance for the industry to run public service-announcements like the Uncle Sam recruiting board. Even earlier, in 1908, the official journal of the Associated Billposters organization ran a piece by the manager of the Gospel Publicity League, an “advertising agency of religious work” which encouraged churches to “meet the people half-way with the Gospel message” by erecting signs. Soon after, the Christian Standard endorsed this “billposting for Christ.”

More recently, driving across a yawning expanse of cornfield-strewn interstate between North Dakota and Minnesota, I came across a series of signs urging me to “Be Nice,” “Enjoy Life,” and “Smile.” The signs have been up ever since an anonymous businessman sponsored their construction in 2004. Every so often, the signs are moved to a new location. “When somebody tells you to smile, it's kind of hard not to,” North Dakota Mayor Ward Koeser told the Williston Herald when they were first erected.

This is the gist of the billboard: It is kind of hard not to do what they want. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America developed a campaign in 1975 to test their effectiveness by placing the newly crowned Miss America, Shirley Cochran, on the face of national signs. Soon after, her name recognition soared 940 percent. Banking on this assumption, the Cincinnati Sheriff’s Office recently launched a “text a tip” campaign urging people to anonymously report suspected heroin dealers. In Toronto, the Gardiner Expressway has an ad urging motorists to “TEXT AND DRIVE,” with the words “Wathan Funeral Home” listed below. Google the home and you’ll land on a website that outs the whole thing as an anti-texting PSA. Though novel in its technological implementation, Rio de Janeiro’s “sweaty” public service billboard follows in a long tradition of loss-leaders meant to renew endearment to large, public advertising.

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In Sao Paulo, 270 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, city dwellers might glimpse a three-story illustration on the wall of a brick building, or the clean cream paint of an art deco building. What they won’t see in the world’s 11th largest city is the mosaic of neon type and oversized product shots that fill most of commercial boulevards and buildings. In 2006, Sao Paulo mayor Gilberto Kassab passed the Clean City Law, after feeling like the city was choking under a haze of unchecked visual pollution. The bill mandated the removal of 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized storefront signs. Kassab’s law was the first in a global movement to “un-brand” cities, stripping them of the large-scale advertisements that pixelate skylines, storefronts, interstates, and bus stops. Chennai, India, followed shortly, as did billboard-bans in Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska. I’m writing these words in Maine, but it takes me a minute—a glance out the window, a scroll through memory—to remember that it’s been a few days since I saw a billboard. I have not missed the signs. And until now, I have not realized I do not miss them.

Still, I am not sure I feel any less “sordid,” to use Olmsted’s word for the malaise of billboard proliferation. Perhaps it is because I am a frequent traveler on a different kind of highway—the internet. In a world where we can order groceries, watch movies, and attend business meetings online, many things that once merited excursions now play out on our laptop screens. And here, the advertisements are frequent. The exits are many. And I am always being lured, bug-like, to the lights.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.