How to look at billboards

One of the truly inspirational and thought-provoking things I’ve read is Howard Gossage’s essay from the February 1960 issue of Harpers, How to look at billboards. I got so exited when I found it yesterday that I whipped up a little home for it on the internet. Thanks to Carrie McLaren for hosting it all this time. It’s probably through Stay Free that I originally ran across it (but I couldn’t find it despite much googling when I was writing about billboards back in 2006).

Gossage is not prescient — he argues that billboards are on their way out. But his arguments that billboards have no right to exist rings just as true as it ever has:

What a billboard looks like has nothing to do with whether it ought to be there. Nor does the fact that it carries advertising have anything to do with it, either. It would be the same thing if it were devoted exclusively to reproductions of the old masters; just as the open range would have been the same thing if they had only run peacocks on it. The real question is: has outdoor advertising the right to exist at all?

The industry says it has. It claims two rights, in fact. In asserting the first of these it clasps the flag firmly to its bosom and, in cadences worthy of William Jennings Bryan, invokes the spirit of free enterprise. Now, it should be understood that the outdoor industry is fighting only against what it regards as discriminatory regulation. It seems never to have occurred to the industry to question its basic right to any existence whatsoever. Therefore, when it protests against operational restrictions, it is not effrontery, as one might think, but outraged indignation. Its reaction is that of an old-time cattle baron the first time a farmer dared to fence in his potato patch.

Outdoor advertising is, of course, a business and as such would ordinarily have a strong case against inroads on its domain. However, there is a very real question whether it has title to its domain. Outdoor advertising is peddling a commodity it does not own and without the owner’s permission: your field of vision. Possibly you have never thought to consider your rights in the matter. Nations put the utmost importance on unintentional violations of their air space. The individual’s air space is intentionally violated by billboards every day of the year.

Please go read the whole thing. It’s a pleasure, and while its arguments are unlikely to sway any public policy now, almost 50 years later, you never know. At the end, Gossage asks you to complete a little billboard ballot, indicating “there ought to be billboards” or “there ought not to be billboards,” and send it back to him so he can track the results. The Stay Free version of the article says, “since Howard Gossage is dead, you can send your coupon to us at Stay Free! . . . and we will take care of it.” I’m not sure whether someone is still compiling these, but even if so it doesn’t seem particularly useful. If you don’t like looking at billboards, I think a much better course is to write to your city, county, and state elected officials. They are the ones that can actually do something, and a little sometimes goes a long way with moving your local governments. Good luck.

How to look at billboards

Update (4/13/09): Linked at Kottke, Boing Boing, and elsewhere.

10 thoughts on “How to look at billboards

  1. Howard Gossage articulates the resentment I’ve always had toward billboards. Now I know why I’ve felt this way.

  2. There ought not to be billboards, but…

    how do you stop them without interfering with someone’s free use of their own property? It’s not like the advertisers are stealing public land and reappropriating it. Well, those “work from home” ads are, but I don’t think think that’s what this article was about…

  3. You just do. Billboards are already plenty regulated, both in terms of what they can display, and where and how they can be built. (An article from here in Miami from a few years ago is instructive.)

    If voters decide they don’t want billboards, that’s the end of the issue.

  4. Excellent, thanks for posting the article.

    There is one error in the following sentence (should be think rather than thing)

    Therefore, when it protests against operational restrictions, it is not effrontery, as one might thing, but outraged indignation.

  5. billboards should be regulated by public authorities but until the commercial industry will find something interesting on them, billboards will grow and grow…

  6. A number of cities already have laws that prohibit people from putting any kind of artwork (murals, graffiti, etc.) on the street-facing walls of their own property— or require the property owner to get a permit from some government board first. I’m not a fan of laws like that, especially if those same cities permit billboards!

    But Sao Paulo has done the reverse: they’ve outlawed billboards and legalized graffiti!

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