In 1965, Lady Bird Johnson wanted the highways clear of billboards and junkyards, and filled with green landscaping and wildflowers. But the powerful billboard industry wasn’t having it.
The battle to pass a law to control the proliferating highway ads was fierce. President Lyndon Johnson told his cabinet “You know I love that woman and she wants that Highway Beautification Act” he said, and “by God, we’re going to get it for her.”
We can’t know how much more visual cacophony we’d have if the act hadn’t passed. But anyone who has driven our roads and highways knows that billboards have proliferated and they can be an eyesore.
They do serve another purpose though. You can learn a lot about a place from its roadside advertising.
You expect to find billboards for traveler needs everywhere—fast food and hotels and gas. Cell phone services are big. And nearby tourist attractions; I think three-quarters of the billboards within 50 miles of Orlando, FL, are for gator parks, theme parks, water parks, and amusement parks.
But more interesting is the way billboards shed light on what’s important to people in a place. Like the South Carolina coast. Just in case you’re driving around looking for a new place to live, most of the billboards are for gated developments and retirement communities. In Buffalo, NY, billboards offer cash for houses and promote the Lotto.
In Nevada, as you might expect, they’re promoting casinos, big production shows, and hot babes. My favorite: the naked-lady billboard for Treasures Gentleman’s Club that will send a limo to pick you up, FREE!.
And based on the number of billboards for personal injury lawyers and insurance agents, you can get an idea of how crazy the drivers are (as if you couldn’t tell while you’re driving). Like anywhere in Florida, and around Las Vegas!
The other thing that has caught my eye is the number of gun shop and gun show billboards across the South (No ID required! No background checks!). Man, a lot of people must be buying guns in North Carolina and Florida, Texas and Arizona, Georgia and, well, many other places you’d expect. There’s a small billboard backlash going on here and there though; in Kansas City, MO, an anti-gun violence board was positioned next to a gun show message. And there’s a giant billboard outside Boston’s Fenway Park that’s been promoting anti-gun messages for years.
But guns are nothing next to God. The number of God/Jesus/church billboards is striking, especially near smaller southern towns and along rural roads, where I imagine boards are less expensive. Quotes from scriptures. Admonishments against sin. Friendly pastors inviting you to join. Anti-abortion messages are especially popular. Here the backlash is a little more prominent: several atheist organizations have been trying to provoke thought and get a conversation going by posting messages along the same routes like, “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.”
Inevitably, politics, social issues, and even hate speech rear their heads. In Kentucky, you’ll see “Coal keeps the lights on.” In Dearborn Heights, MI, a digital billboard featured an anti-gay message (“Homosexuality is a behavior. Not a civil right.”); which prompted the group God Loves Gays to place an ad on the same rotating board that reads “God Loves Gays.” Segregationist screeds have appeared in Birmingham, AL (I won’t repeat them). In Victoria, TX, a deceptively benign board reads “Pray for Obama”, and below that, “Psalm 109:8-15” (which reads “May his days be few; may another take his office…” and it gets more hateful from there).
They can get a little out there. Heading over to the Southwest (where we’ve just spent a couple of months), you’ll see boards from the people who are concerned about “climate engineering”? What, you didn’t know the government is seeding the skies with contrails that wage weather war on us? Apparently, climate engineers decide when you’ll get rain, snow, drought or heat, where and how much, and how toxic it will be. So Geoengineering.org is posting a lot of billboards in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and elsewhere, to “have a visual impact that helps to breakdown the well programmed denial” of this insidious threat.
If you want a rest from this raucous roadside conversation, just hang out in Maine, Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii, where billboards are outlawed And a growing number of cities prohibit them: Houston, Denver, St. Louis, Kansas City and others. You won’t learn as much about those places when you’re driving by. But if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the trip a little more.