Billboard messages more than ads

Billboards. They stand proud atop metropolitan buildings and rural, rolling hills alike, promoting everything from politicians to poultry. They can be entertaining — did somebody say Wall Drug? — or disturbing, depending on how you look at them. The best ones are often both: Howard Stern, anyone?
But long before Stern asked the world to “Turn On Howard” (and his shock-jock radio program) with images of scantily clad women, marketing masterminds in the tobacco industry had been posting invitations to Newport beaches and Marlboro country on billboards nationwide. Just as the tobacco industry was banned from the boob tube decades earlier, they got smoked out of the billboard biz in April as part of a nationwide settlement to minimize their influence.
Icons like Joe Camel, aka Mr. Phallic, can no longer look down their snouts at us. Instead, the signs are being replaced with stop-smoking messages. The propaganda war being waged isn’t relegated to tobacco exclusively, of course; abortion-rights advocates and abortion opponents battle it out on billboards incessantly. Other signs simply tell us which brand names to remember, which news station to tune into or which college to attend.
And they tell us largely in public spaces.
A few years ago, rumor had it that a multinational soft drink company had launched a massive satellite into space in a blimp-like marketing ploy. A false story, but the analogy to billboards speaks volumes. Who wants to gaze at the stars on a clear night, having hiked or canoed to some remote nook of the woods, only to look up and see a glowing celestial advertisement? The notion brings new meaning to the term space invaders.
On road trips with my family as a kid, I used to look out the back-seat window, pointing out the various signs we passed. I would show off my newfound reading abilities by gleaning specific letters of the alphabet from signs and piecing together a string from A to Z. The game got old fast.
As I got older, I wondered why some signs were misspelled: Krazy Kidstuff Kollectables, Daze Inn, the list goes on. Like the games, the billboards got old, too. But my attention was grabbed. I discovered later, that if you billboard, my eyes will come.
Such young memories of reading billboards are common. We learn to pay attention early, then think we’ve phased it out later in life, only to discover we can’t.
It’s an advertising medium unlike most others. Radio and TV are avoidable enough, really. A person out for a walk in the city, or driving past pine forests and cornfields looking around for the sake of looking needn’t be force-fed advertisements, right? Wrong.
Visual manipulation in the form of 20 by 10 foot messages too often stand in the way.
If only we could carry rocket launchers for such occasions, I mused in high school. But such violence, while potentially gratifying, solves nothing.
Some groups have taken the law into their own hands. Towns across the country, including Richfield, Minn., have imposed laws that put moratoriums on and call for the dismantling of existing signs. Two years ago, the St. Paul City Council voted unanimously to ban billboards, but Mayor Norm Coleman vetoed the resolution. Showing a change of heart, Coleman approved a more limited version of law earlier this month.
Four states have billboard bans: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont. Minnesota tried to join their ranks this year, but the bill was quickly shot down in the Legislature. Instead, Minnesota became the first state to scrap its amortization law, a traditional tool municipalities use to demand that land-owners clean up eye sores in a community — including junkyards, sex shops and, yes, billboards.
It’s not that they just look bad, the structures decrease property values, said Brian Bates, director of Scenic Minnesota, a local chapter of Scenic America, which lobbies lawmakers in Washington to stop billboard sprawl. “They’re an indicator of urban blight. You don’t see them when you go to suburban neighborhoods.”
Throwing out the amortization law means that local citizens will have to pay big bucks to take down something that’s decreasing their property value, Bates added.
Regardless of the product, person or passion being promoted, onlookers cannot turn off the pretty faces and loud words. Whether or not adversaries who exploit billboards realize it, they are holding hands in a perverse stomp across the landscape, pocketbook and psyche of our country.
Many Daily employees are regularly disturbed by a billboard across the street. It hosts a shiny television crew who purport to Kare, yes, with a K. A broad-shouldered man (anti-Christ? You be the judge). is flanked by a pair of attractive women, and another pair of 30-something men. They stare at us daily. We can’t run; we can’t hide from their karing stare. Take that crap to the suburbs.

Jake Kapsner’s column appears on alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]