Rick Landau 2000/03/11
Never really paid much attention to billboards before. I was slightly surprised to see so many of them here in Texas. After all, it was Lady Bird Johnson whose "Beautify America" campaign in the sixties removed many, maybe even most, of the billboards in the country. So here we are driving through the very heart of LBJ country, from Austin, past Johnson City, through San Marcos, to San Antonio and back. The road is lined with billboards, not constant by any means, but more than I expected. And we started to read them, and we noticed some things.
Most of them seem to fall into a very few large categories:
First, travel services. You know, the usual food-gas-lodging signs: hotels, restaurants, gas stations, that sort of thing. Lots of these. I would also include tourist traps in this group: amusement parks, caverns, geysers, world's largest ball of twine, and so forth. Lots of these, too.
Second, vices. Products that are expensive because of "sin taxes." Products that may have limited opportunities for advertising elsewhere. The products that can't access TV or radio anymore, that is, mainly alcohol and tobacco. Half the brands of cheap whiskey and wine that I've ever heard of I learned from billboards. Cigarettes, too; since I stopped smoking, who looks at brands? By the way, I would also include cars, trucks, pickups, SUVs, UAVs, and RVs in this category. Vehicles that are more bigger, brawnier, and more expensive than you need are vices of a sort.
Third, real estate. Buy a house, rent an apartment. Housing developments, condos, apartments. And trailer parks, RV parks, double-wides and single-wides, too. If you lived here, you'd be home by now. Most of them are builders trying to sell future houses, for sure, the high end of the market and more likely to be able to afford roadside advertising.
Fourth, local commercial enterprises other than travel services. Furniture stores, clothing stores, hardware stores. Antique malls, outlet malls. Car dealers, palm readers. Some of the local advertising isn't *very* local, like the "image" advertising that you see for banks and other large area businesses. But most of them are local in the sense that if you get off the exit they name, there you are.
By the way, I don't count signs that are "in place," that is, that are attached to the business venue. Every business has to have a sign out front just so its customers can find it. Doesn't count. These aren't billboards. Remote advertising along the roadside, free-standing signs that belong to someone else and are rented out, that's what I'm talking about.
Now for the ringers. There are a surprising number of signs for products and services that don't fit into any of the above categories. They're for products that don't have any location, exactly, so they aren't local in the normal sense of the word. They're sort of everywhere at once and nowhere at the same time.
I refer of course to cell phones, cell phone services, paging services, internet services, and internet-based services, things of that nature. This new electronic stuff out there in the ether. Now Austin may be a slightly over-technologized area, but I doubt that it's really very different from Boston or New York or Silicon Valley. Or Seattle or Portland. Or Duluth or Peoria, for that matter.
The question in my mind isn't why these services advertise -- all God's chillun need advertising -- but how they choose *where* to advertise. If you're an internet-based mortgage company, well, you choose billboard locations where people are buying a lot of new housing, I suppose. If you're a cell phone company or carrier, you put your billboards where people who need them (phones) will see them (ads). These ads are placed to maximize the eyeballs, I suppose. That's the term used for ad placements on web pages: eyeballs.