Billboard (advertising)

Roadside billboards frequently encourage passersby to visit local businesses.
Roadside billboards frequently encourage passersby to visit local businesses.

A billboard or hoarding is a large outdoor signboard, usually wooden, found in places with high traffic such as cities, roads, motorways and highways. Billboards show large advertisements aimed at passing pedestrians and drivers. The vast majority of billboards are rented to advertisers rather than owned by them.

Typically showing large, witty slogans splashed with distinctive color pictures, billboards line the highways and are placed on the sides of buildings, peddling products and getting out messages. Billboards originally existed alongside and later largely replaced advertisements painted directly onto the sides of buildings or designed into roofs in shingle patterns.



Traditional billboards

Billboards are typically large wooden signs, with the larger ones typically 48'x14' or 24'x12' (width x height). The display is painted or printed on a vinyl sheet which is glued onto the board. Smaller 22'x10' and 20'6"x9' billboards display a series of thirty or twenty four printed posters respectively to make up the sign. This format is cheaper to produce but has less visual impact.

Times Square electronic billboards, some changing their messages every few seconds.
Times Square electronic billboards, some changing their messages every few seconds.

Mechanical billboards

Some modern billboards use a technique called tri-faced (also known as rotating or multi-message billboards). These billboards show three separate adverts in rotation using a mechanical system. They are made up of a series of triangular prisms arranged so that they can be rotated to present three separate flat display surfaces. The displays for these billboards are printed on strips of vinyl which are fixed to the faces of the triangular panels, with one strip from each of three different displays attached to each panel. In this way as the panels rotate and pause three unique signs can be displayed in the same space. These signs are thought to be more effective as the motion draws attention to the messages displayed.

Digital billboards

New billboards are being produced that are entirely digitized (using projection and similar techniques), allowing animations and completely rotating advertisements. Even holographic billboards are in use in some places.

Interaction is an emerging theme in electronic billboards, with Britain at the forefront: in Piccadilly Circus the Coca-Cola billboard responds to the weather and responds with an animated wave when passersby wave at it [1] ( London movie theatres are experimenting with billboards which contain an embedded computer chip which can interact with the web browser found in many cell phones to provide more information on the subject of the advertisement. [2] (,1452,59548,00.html) In the spring of 2004 in Times Square in New York City, a Yahoo! Autos promotion displayed on an LED billboard allowed one to call a phone number with a cell phone and play a two-person racing game where the cars appeared on the billboard. [3] ( There are also upcoming billboard technologies that will synchronize with advertisements on radio stations. Shinjuku in Tokyo, Japan, is famous for its large digital billboards.

Mobile billboards

Billboards can also be made mobile, either by mounting a traditional billboard onto a trailer or flatbed truck, or by covering an entire vehicle in a "wrap" image.

Advertising style

Billboard advertisements are designed to catch a person's attention and create a memorable impression very quickly, leaving the reader thinking about the advertisement after they have driven past it. They have to be readable in a very short time because they are usually read while being passed at high speeds. Thus there are usually only a few words, in large print, and a humorous or arresting image in brilliant color.

Some billboard designs spill outside the actual space given to them by the billboard, with parts of figures hanging off the billboard edges or jutting out of the billboard in three dimensions. A humorous example in the United States around the turn of the 21st century were the Chick-fil-A billboards (a chicken sandwich fast food chain), which had three-dimensional cow figures in the act of painting the billboards with misspelled anti-beef slogans such as "frendz dont let frendz eat beef."

Placement of billboards

Alongside highways are some of the most noticeable and prominent places billboards are situated, since passing drivers typically have little to occupy their attention so the impact of the billboard is greater. Billboards are often drivers' primary way of finding out where food and fuel are available when driving on unfamiliar highways. There were approximately 450,000 billboards on United States highways as of 1991. Somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 are erected each year. Billboards are in Europe a major component and source of income in urban street furniture concepts.

Missing image
Burma-Shave popularized canned shaving cream with the first billboard campaign employing a roadside sequence of signs telling a joke or rhyme.

An interesting use of billboards unique to highways was the Burma-Shave advertisements between 1925 and 1963, which had 4- or 5-part messages stretched across multiple signs, keeping the reader hooked by the promise of a punchline at the end. This example is in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution:

Shaving brushes
You'll soon see 'em
On a shelf
In some museum

These sort of multi-sign advertisements are no longer common, though they are not extinct. One recent example, advertising for the NCAA, depicts a basketball player aiming a shot on one billboard; on the next one, 90 yards away, is the basket.

Many cities have high densities of billboards, especially in places where there is a lot of pedestrian traffic—Times Square in New York City is a good example. Because of the lack of space in cities, these billboards are painted or hung on the sides of buildings and sometimes are even free-standing billboards hanging above buildings. Billboards on the sides of buildings create different stylistic opportunities, with artwork that incorporates features of the building into the design e.g. using windows as eyes, or for gigantic frescoes that adorn the entire building.

Opposition to billboards

Missing image
The radical Animal Liberation Front modified this Chick-fil-A billboard to support its vegan aims.

Visual and environmental concerns

Many groups such as Scenic America have complained that billboards on highways cause too much clearing of trees and intrude on the surrounding landscape, with billboards' bright colors, lights and large fonts making it hard to focus on anything else. Other groups believe that billboards and advertising in general contribute negatively to the mental climate of a culture by promoting products as providing feelings of completeness, wellness and popularity to motivate purchase. One focal point for this sentiment would be the magazine AdBusters, which will often showcase politically motivated billboard and other advertising vandalism, called culture jamming.

As of 2000, rooftops in Athens had grown so thick with billboards that it was getting very difficult to see its fabled architecture. In preparation for the 2004 Summer Olympics, the city embarked on a successful four-year project demolishing the majority of rooftop billboards to beautify the city for the tourists the games will bring, overcoming resistance from advertisers and building owners. These billboards were for the most part illegal, but had been ignored up to then.

Road safety concerns

In the United States, many cities tried to put laws into effect to ban billboards as early as 1909 (California Supreme Court, Varney & Green vs. Williams) but the First Amendment has made these attempts difficult. A San Diego law championed by Pete Wilson in 1971 cited traffic safety and driver distraction as the reason for the billboard ban, but that law too was narrowly overturned by the Supreme Court in 1981, in part because it banned non-commercial as well as commercial billboards.

Billboards have long been accused of being distracting to drivers and causing accidents. Signs with bright colors and eye-grabbing pictures may cause drivers to look away from the road during a crucial moment. Electronic, animated signs in particular have been singled out [4] ( as a cause. Studies have also shown that billboards at junctions and on long stretches of highway may have a particularly detrimental effect on road safety[5] (

Laws limiting billboards

There has been some legal success in curbing billboards. San Diego's efforts opened up some legal avenues that made it possible for other cities to ban billboards. And at the national level, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, championed by Lady Bird Johnson, limited the rapidly increasing number of billboards along the nation's highway. (An interesting note about that legislation: around major holidays, volunteer groups put up large highway signs offering free coffee at the next rest stop to keep drivers awake on their long treks from state to state. These billboards were specifically exempted from the limits in the Act.)

Billboards often become targets for culture jammers who oppose the commercialism of their message or the corporation that sponsors the billboard. In an activity called billboard liberation, culture jammers modify billboards in ways that change the meaning of the sign altogether, often in a humorous way. For example, the Animal Liberation Front once replaced a Chick-fil-A billboard's "Eat More Chicken" message with "Eat More Tofu."

Uses of billboards

Highway billboards

Most highway signs exist to advertise local restaurants and shops in the miles to come, and are crucial to drawing business in small towns that no one would stop at otherwise. One illuminating example is Wall Drug, which in 1931 put up billboards advertising "free ice water" and the town of Wall, South Dakota as it is known today was essentially built around the 20,000 customers per day those billboards were bringing in as of 1981. Some signs were even placed in locations great distances away, with slogans such as "only 827 miles to Wall Drug, with FREE ice water." In some areas the signs were so dense that one sign almost immediately followed the last. This situation changed after the Highway Beautification Act was passed; the proliferation of Wall Drug billboards is sometimes cited as one of the reasons the bill was passed.

Big name advertisers

Billboards are also used to advertise national or global brands, particularly in more densely populated urban areas. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the top three companies advertising on billboards as of 2003 were McDonald's, Anheuser-Busch and Miller. A large number of wireless phone companies, movie companies, cars manufacturers and banks are high on the list as well.

Tobacco advertising

Billboards are also a major venue of cigarette advertising (10% of Michigan billboards advertise alcohol and tobacco, according to the Detroit Free Press [6] ( This is particularly true in countries where tobacco advertisements are not allowed in other media. For example in the U.S. tobacco advertising was banned on radio and television in 1971, leaving billboards and magazines as some of the last places tobacco could be advertised. Billboards made the news in America when, in the tobacco settlement of 1999, all cigarette billboards were replaced with anti-smoking messages. In a parody of the Marlboro Man, some billboards depicted cowboys riding on ranches with slogans like "Bob, I miss my lung."

Non-commercial use of billboards

Not all billboards are used for advertising products and services—non-profit groups and government agencies use them to communicate with the public. In 1999 an anonymous person created the God Speaks billboard campaign in Florida "to get people thinking about God", with witty statements signed by God. "Don't make me come down there", "We need to talk" and "Keep using my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer" were parts of the campaign, which was picked up by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America and continues on billboards across the country to this day.

South of Olympia, Washington is the privately owned Uncle Sam billboard. It features conservative, sometimes inflammatory messages, changed on a regular basis. Chehalis farmer Al Hamilton first started the board during the Johnson era, when the government was trying to make him remove his billboards along interstate 5. He had erected the signs after he lost a legal battle to prevent the building of the freeway across his land. Numerous legal and illegal attempts to remove the Uncle Sam billboard have failed, and it is now in its third location. Humor has been more successful. One message, attacking a nearby liberal arts college, was photographed, made into a postcard and is sold in the College Bookstore.


Early billboards were basically large posters on the sides of buildings, with limited but still appreciable commercial value. As roads and highways multiplied, the billboard business thrived.

See also


General references

Legal history in the United States

Billboard galleries and campaigns

he:שלט (אמצעי פרסום) sv:Annonstavla


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