WSJ on Billboard Advertising Battles

The Journal’s Cynthia Crossen gives an overview of political battles surrounding billboard advertising today. An interesting read, in part because billboard advertising lobbyists have been pretty shameless in their political advocacy. I remember that when I lived in Georgia, they wanted to lop off the tops of trees so that billboards could be better seen. In order to get around regulations that distanced billboards from the roads, the industry created megabillboards that were huge. And they argued that billboards actually improved roadway safety because it gave drivers an interruption from the monotony of driving (one could see how that cuts both ways!).

Anyway, this article demonstrates some of the tensions between those who find them vulgar, and those who think banning them is a form of legislating beauty.

The battle between billboard lovers and haters simmered for half a century before reaching a climax in 1965, when Lady Bird Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act…

Under the law, which applies only to highways that receive federal aid, states must maintain “effective control” over advertising on their highways. Billboards visible from the highway in “scenic” areas are prohibited, although land zoned commercial or industrial is exempt.

Outdoor advertisers lobbied heavily against the bill. Walter S. Meyers, an executive with a company that owned 60,000 billboards across the U.S., argued that the law would limit the freedom of the motorist to choose where he wanted to spend the night, where he wanted to eat and what kind of gasoline he wanted to buy. “Most repugnant,” Mr. Meyers said, was the idea that some people wanted to codify beauty. “They would have their standards of taste and art enforced by the government.”


The U.S. Supreme Court revisited the issue in 1981. Nine years earlier, the city of San Diego had effectively banned most billboards, and an outdoor advertising company, Metromedia, sued. But California’s highest court ruled for the city. “To hold that a city cannot prohibit off-site commercial billboards for the purpose of protecting and preserving the beauty of the environment is to succumb to a bleak materialism,” wrote Justice Matthew Tobriner.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, noting that “valuable commercial, political and social information is communicated to the public through the use of outdoor advertising. Many businesses and politicians rely upon outdoor advertising because other forms of advertising are insufficient, inappropriate and prohibitively expensive.”

Today, billboards are becoming digitized, and they’re bigger, brighter and more profitable than the old poster boards. Electronic billboards can change messages every few seconds, making it possible to sell the same space to multiple advertisers.

“Outdoor advertising is great,” boasted Clear Channel Outdoor in a recent news release, “because you can’t turn it off, throw it away or click on the next page.”

Clear Channel’s point–that you can’t turn off their message–is one that opens the door to privacy issues in billboard advertising. What? Billboards an invasion of privacy? It’s worth reading this essay by ad man Howard Gossage on the subject.


  1. “I think that I shall never see
    A billboard lovely as a tree.
    Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
    I’ll never see a tree at all.”
    Ogden Nash

  2. valhar2000

    We haven’t had billboards in Spain for a decade or two, and nothing has happened.

  3. Here in the UK, some advertisers have found a loophole for advertising regulations: They paint their billboards on the side of truck-trailers, then park those in fields beside motorways. It is, according to the letter of the law, not technically a billboard because the primary purpose of a trailer is not adverising. Even one that has been parked in a field with no engine attached, positioned so its huge advert is prominantly visible.

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