From simple barnside advertisements and other billboarding techniques of the early 1900s, to today's huge high-tech creations on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, billboards and outdoor advertising have been an integral part of both the landscape and the consciousness of America since the evolution of the American car culture of the early twentieth century.
Like many twentieth-century phenomena, the modern advertising spectacle, which the French have termed gigantisme, actually dates back to ancient times and the great obelisks of Egypt. By the late 1400s billboarding, or the mounting of promotional posters in conspicuous public places, had become an accepted practice in Europe. Wide-scale visual advertising came into its own with the invention of lithography in 1796, and by 1870 was further advanced by the technological progress of the Industrial Revolution.
In America early advertising techniques were relatively naive, involving melodramatic situations, body ills, hygiene, and testimonials. Even so, the impact of subliminal suggestion was not unknown, and merchandising through association, with glamour, prestige, sex, and celebrities being the most popular ploys, was discovered early on. Thus, with few variations, the tenets of modern advertising were firmly in place by the twentieth century.
Predecessors of the modern billboard were posters for medicine shows, theatrical troupes, and spots events, and especially famous were those showing exaggerated versions of Barnum and Bailey's circus and Wild West acts. Initially no legal restrictions were placed on the posting of signs, and billboarding became part of the early entertainment world, with representatives traveling ahead of companies and competitively selecting choice locations which were then rented or leased. Thus these poster salesmen became the first pioneers of the outdoor advertising industry.
By the turn of the twentieth century, economic growth peaked in both Europe and America, creating new markets for both products and information. With the development of the automobile in the early 1900s, the stage was set for the rise of the roadside billboard. Sally Henderson notes: "An intense connection between the automobile, auto travel, and the outdoor poster (or billboard) was the natural outcome of a society in which individuals were becoming increasingly mobile. The outdoor ad had been waiting all along for the one product to come along that would change the world's habits, styles of living, and advertising modes: the automobile."
Early billboards were fairly austere, really posters with some kind of framing effect, but with the 1920s both design and the billboard setting (or frame) developed along more aesthetic lines. The focus of a deluxe 1920s billboard was colorful and ornate illustration, in a stylized but usually realistic (if idealized) mode. Product names were emphasized; and messages, if any, were understated and concise. Frames were wooden, mostly painted white, and often mounted on a base of lattice-work panels. Elaborate set-ups included end supports in the form of female figures. These were similar to the caryatid figures found in Greek architecture and were called lizzies. Billboards in the 1920s might also be highly accessorized, including shaded electric light fixtures and illuminated globes, picket fences, and a plot of flowers.
While the first fully electrical billboards appeared in New York in 1891, standard billboard style did not really change a great deal until the 1950s, though with World War II advertisers promoted war bonds along with products, not only out of patriotism, but because they were also given tax breaks to do so. Propagandistic visions of battleships, explosive war scenes, along with promises for a brighter, better tomorrow (to be provided, of course, by the products of the companies sponsoring the billboards) shared space with familiar commercial trademarks during World War II.
In the affluent post war 1950s, an age of cultural paradox when social values were being both embraced and questioned, outdoor advertising finally entered the modern age. A burgeoning youth market also first emerged during this decade, and all these mixed trends were reflected in mass advertising that was both more innovative and less realistic. The 1950s were the "Golden Age of Paint." Painting made possible bigger, glossier presentations, enabling billboards (like the 3-D movies of the early 1950s) to transcend their flat surfaces, as TWA (Trans World Airlines) planes and Greyhound buses suddenly seemed to emerge from the previously circumscribed space of the traditional billboard.
Youth culture in the 1950s exploded into the mid-1960s psychedelic era, and was reflected in the color-drenched surrealism and Op Art effects of billboards now aimed at the under 30 generation, whose ruling passions were fashion, sexuality, and entertainment. Billboards increasingly suggested gigantic recreations of rock LP jackets, and (like certain album covers) sometimes did not even mention the name of the group or product. The Pop Art movement, an ironic, but wry comment on an increasingly materialistic society, blurred the distinction between the fine and commercial arts, and billboards, along with Campbell's soup cans, were considered worthy of critical appraisal. Evolving out of the youth mania was the young adult singles market, and images of the wholesome American family gave way to solo visions of the ruggedly independent Marlboro man and the sexy Black Velvet woman.
As 1970s consumerism replaced 1960s idealism another art movement, Photorealism, became an important element of outdoor advertising, as billboards came to resemble huge, meticulously detailed Photorealist paintings. In the 1980s and 1990s, the failure of any influential art movement to emerge after Photorealism, or indeed the absence of any discernible cultural movements comparable to those of the 1950s or 1960s, contributed to the increasingly generic, if admittedly grandiose high-tech quality of much mainstream advertising. Cued by rapid changes in signage laws and property ownership, a movable billboard was developed in the 1980s. Inflatables, both attached to signs (such as a killer whale crashing through a Marineland billboard) and free-standing like huge Claes Oldenburg soft sculptures, have heightened the surreality of modern life with advertising in three-dimensions.
While some critics view billboards as outdoor art and socio/cultural barometers, concern over the environment and anti-billboard lobbying commenced in the late 1950s, and a 1963 study drew the first connection between the prominent placement of billboards along the New York State Thruway and traffic accidents. Certain minimal standards were established, and today's most grandiose billboards are confined to urban districts such as New York's Times Square, and the Las Vegas and Los Angeles strips, modern meccas whose identities have been virtually defined by the blatant flaunting of their flashy commercial accouterments. But Sally Henderson has also called Los Angeles' famed Sunset Strip "a drive-through gallery, a lesson in contemporary art … a twentieth-century art experience, quick and to the point." In the entertainment capital of the world, however, a billboard on the Strip remains as much a gigantic status symbol as an advertising tool or Pop Art artifact.
Pop Art or visual pollution, the outcry against billboards of previous decades has subsided into stoic acceptance of an inescapable tool of capitalism, and one which relentlessly both tells and shows the public that the best things in life are emphatically not free (though actual prices remain conspicuously absent from most billboards). In a unique instance of one pervasive visual medium being used as an effective signifying device within another, however, critical comment on billboards has been immortalized in the movies. Billboards in films are often seen as characteristic signifiers of the ills and ironies of both the American landscape, and the American Dream itself.
In a more optimistic mode, older film musicals used electrical billboards to symbolize the glamour of the big city and stardom. Singin' in the Rain (1952) climaxes with a ballet in which a vast set composed of towering Broadway electric signs suddenly blazes to life to illuminate Gene Kelly, who had previously been isolated in darkness. While a visually spectacular moment, the shot also signifies that aspiring dancer Kelly has finally "arrived" at the apex of his dreams. The same message is reenforced at the film's end when Kelly and Debbie Reynolds are seen standing in front of a billboard that mirrors the couple in an advertisement for their first starring roles in a big movie musical. In a more satirical vein, It Should Happen To You's (1954) Judy Holliday makes a name for herself by plastering her moniker on a Columbus Circle billboard. The concept of the film was allegedly based on a real publicity stunt by Mamie Van Doren's agent, and similar billboards promoting Angelyne, a "personality" with no discernible talent or occupation, are still fixtures of modern day Los Angeles.
In later films, billboards were employed as an instantly recognizable symbol of a materialistic culture that constantly dangles visions of affluence in front of characters (and thus a public) who are then programmed for a struggle to achieve it. No Down Payment (1957), an exposé of suburban life, opens with shots of billboards hawking real Los Angeles housing developments, while glamorous but Musak-like music plays on the soundtrack. No Down Payment was among the first spate of 1950s films shot in Cinema Scope, and the opening images of huge California billboards draw a perhaps unintentional parallel between the shape and scale of the American billboard, and the huge new wide-screen projection process that Hollywood hoped would lure patrons away from their new television sets and back into movie theaters.
Billboards are used to even more cynical effect in Midnight Cowboy (1969). With an outsider's sharp eye for the visual clutter of the American landscape, British director John Schlesinger (who had already shown keen awareness of the ironies of modern advertising in Darling, 1965) uses American billboards throughout the film as an ironic counterpoint to a depressing saga of a naive Texan who aspires to make it as a hustler in the big city. Billboards cue flashbacks to Joe Buck's troubled past life on his bus journey to New York, taunt him with images of affluence as he later wanders destitute through the mean streets of the city, and finally, on their bus journey south at the end of the film, cruelly tantalize both Joe and his ailing companion, Ratso Rizzo, with glossy images of a paradisal Florida which one of them will not live to see.
One of the more bizarre uses of billboard gigantisme in modern cinema is Boccaccio '70 (1962), which also offers a wickedly sly comment on the obsessive use of larger-than-life sexual symbolism in modern outdoor advertising. In the Fellini "Temptation of Dr. Antonio" episode a gigantic figure of Anita Ekberg comes to life and steps down from a billboard on which the puritanical doctor has been obsessing to erotically torment him to the strains of an inane jingle imploring the public to "drink more milk!"
Blake, Peter. God's Own Junkyard The Planned Deterioration of America's Landscape. New York/Chicago/San Francisco, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 1964.
Fraser, James Howard. The American Billboard: 100 Years. New York, Harry Abrams, 1991.
Henderson, Sally, and Robert Landau. Billboard Art. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1980.