[bil-bawrd, -bohrd]

A billboard is a large outdoor advertising structure (a billing board), typically found in high traffic areas such as alongside busy roads. Billboards present large advertisements to passing pedestrians and drivers. Typically showing large, ostensibly witty slogans and distinctive visuals, billboards are highly visible in the top designated market areas.

Bulletins are the largest, most impactful standard-size billboards. Located primarily on major highways, expressways or principal arterials, they command high-density consumer exposure (mostly to vehicular traffic). Bulletins afford greatest visibility due not only to their size, but because they allow creative "customizing" through extensions and embellishments.

Posters are the other common form of billboard advertising, located chiefly in commercial and industrial areas on primary and secondary arterial roads. Posters are a smaller format than bulletins and are viewed principally by residents and commuter traffic, with some pedestrian exposure.

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. An 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 don't let frendz eat beef."

Placement of billboards

Some of the most noticeable and prominent places billboards are situated alongside highways; since passing drivers typically have little to occupy their attention, 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. In Europe billboards are a major component and source of income in urban street furniture concepts.

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 example, advertising for the NCAA, depicts a basketball player aiming a shot on one billboard; on the next one, 90 yards (82 meters) away, is the basket. Another example is the numerous billboards that advertise the roadside attraction South of the Border near Dillon, SC. They stretch along I-95 for many states.

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.

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, making them a form of visual pollution. 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.

In 2000, rooftops in Athens had grown so thick with billboards that it was very difficult to see its famous 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.

In 2007, São Paulo, Brazil instituted a billboard ban. The ban occurred because there were no viable regulations in-place to regulate the billboard industry. Today, São Paulo, Brazil, is working with outdoor companies in the region to rebuild the outdoor infrastructure in a way that will reflect the vibrant business climate of the Latin American city while adopting good regulations to control growth.

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. However, the evidence is that these assertions are not true. Researchers at the University of North Carolina prepared a thorough report on driver distraction for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This study, released in June 2001, said: "The search appears to suggest that some items—such as CB radios, billboards, and temperature controls—are not significant distractions."

Traffic safety experts have studied the relationship between outdoor advertising and traffic accidents since the 1950s, finding no authoritative or scientific evidence that billboards are linked to traffic accidents. However, many of these studies were funded by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which has led to accusations of bias. The methodology used in certain studies is also questionable.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, State Department of Transportation and property/casualty insurance companies statistics on fatal accidents indicate no correlation between billboards and traffic accidents. A broad sampling of law enforcement agencies across the country found no evidence to suggest that motor vehicle accidents were caused by billboards. Property and casualty insurance companies have conducted detailed studies of traffic accident records and conclude no correlation between billboards and traffic accidents.

However, studies based on correlations between traffic accidents and billboards face the problem of under-reporting: drivers are unwilling to admit responsibility for a crash, so will not admit to being distracted at a crucial moment. Even given this limitation, some studies have found higher crash rates in the vicinity of advertising using variable message signs or electronic billboards.

It is possible that the presence of advertising signs in rural areas are of value in reducing a driver boredom, which many believe is a positive contribution to highway safety. On the other hand, drivers may fixate on a billboard which unexpectedly appears in an otherwise monotonous landscape, and drive straight into it (a phenomenon known as "highway hypnosis").

Surveys of drivers and road users show that the lighting provided by billboards provide security and visibility to many motorists. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) went on record (Federal Register, March 5, 1999) stating that the agency agrees that appropriately regulated billboards do not compromise highway safety. It should be noted that this statement was made before the release of the FHWA report Research review of potential safety effects of electronic billboards on driver attention and distraction in 2001. What level of regulation is appropriate for billboards in different areas is still under discussion by road safety experts around the world.

Laws limiting billboards

In 1964 the negative impact of the over-proliferation of signage was abundantly evident in Houston, Texas, and motivated Lady Bird Johnson to ask her husband to create a law. At the same time the outdoor advertising industry itself was becoming keenly aware that the existence of too many signs, some literally one in front of the other, was bad for business.

In 1965, the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law. The act applied only to "Federal Aid Primary" and "Defense" highways and limited billboards to commercial and industrial zones created by states and municipalities. It required each state to set standards based on "customary use" for the size, lighting and spacing of billboards, and prohibited city and state governments from taking down billboards without paying cash compensation to the sign's owner. The act requires all states to maintain "effective control" of billboards or lose 5% of their federal highway dollars.

The act also required the screening of junk yards adjacent to regulated highways.

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.

Currently, four states—Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine—have prohibited billboards.

In the UK, billboards are controlled as adverts as part of the planning system. To display such a advert is a criminal offence with a fine of up to £2500 per offence (per poster). All of the large UK outdoor advertisers such as JCDecaux, Clear Channel, Titan and Primesight have numerous convictions for such crimes.



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. After the passage of the act, other states (such as Oregon) embarked on highway beautification efforts.

Golf courses

Billboards are becoming smaller and focusing their messages to specifically targeted groups of people. Traditionally billboards have been huge roadside structures that concentrated on delivering mass messages to huge numbers of viewers. Although this approach is excellent for certain types of advertisers there has been a shift to using smaller format billboards with specific messages aimed at a well defined group of consumers. Placing small billboards on golf courses and on GPS screens on golf carts has allowed both large and smaller advertisers to reach a demographically desirable group of people with specific messages.

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, car manufacturers and banks are high on the list as well.

Tobacco advertising

Prior to 1999, billboards were a major venue of cigarette advertising; 10% of Michigan billboards advertise alcohol and tobacco, according to the Detroit Free Press. 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."

Likely the best-known of the tobacco advertising boards were those for "Mail Pouch" chewing tobacco in the United States during the first half of the 20th century (pictured above). The company agreed to paint two or three sides of a farmer's barn any color he chose in exchange for painting their advert on the one or two sides of the structure facing the road. The company has long since abandoned this form of advertising, and none of these adverts have been painted in many years, but some are still viewable on various rural highways around the country, though less of them each year, as they are continually weathering, being overpainted or simply torn down.

Non-commercial use

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 today on billboards across the country.

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. One message, attacking a nearby liberal arts college, was photographed, made into a postcard and is sold in the College Bookstore.


The Traffic Audit Bureau for Media Measurement Inc. (TAB) was established in 1933 as a non-profit organization whose historical mission has been to audit the circulation of out-of-home media in the United States. TAB's role has expanded to lead and/or support other major out of home industry research initiatives. Governed by a tripartite board composed of advertisers, agencies and media companies, the TAB acts an independent auditor for traffic circulation in accordance to guidelines established by its Board of Directors.

Similarly, in Canada, the Canadian Outdoor Measurement Bureau (COMB) was formed in 1965 as a non-profit organization independently operated by representatives composed of advertisers, advertising agencies and members of the Canadian out-of-home advertising industry. COMB is charged with the verification of traffic circulation for the benefit of the industry and its users.


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.

  • 1794 – Lithography was invented, making real posters possible
  • 1835 – Jared Bell was making 9x6 posters for the circus in the U.S.
  • 1867 – Earliest known billboard rentals (source: OAAA)
  • 1872 – International Bill Posters Association of North America was established (now known as the Outdoor Advertising Association of America) as a billboard lobbying group.
  • 1889 - The world's first 24 sheet billboard was displayed at the Paris Exposition and later at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The format was quickly adopted for various types of advertising, especially for circuses, traveling shows, and movies
  • 1908 – The Model T automobile is introduced in the U.S., increasing the number of people using highways and therefore the reach of roadside billboards.
  • 1919 - Japanese candy company Glico introduces its building-spanning billboard, the Glico Man
  • 1925 – Burma-Shave makes its billboards lining the highways
  • 1931 – The Wall Drug billboards start to go up nationwide
  • 1960 - The mechanized Kani Doraku billboard is built in Dotonbori, Osaka
  • 1965 – the Highway Beautification Act is passed after much campaigning by Lady Bird Johnson
  • 1971 – The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act bans cigarette ads in television and radio, moving that business into billboards
  • 1981 – The Supreme Court overturns a San Diego billboard ban, but leaves room open for other cities to ban commercial billboards
  • 1997 – Tobacco advertising is no longer allowed on outdoor billboards in America
  • 2007 – Industry adopts one sheet plastic poster replacement for paper poster billboards and begins phase-out of PVC flexible vinyl, replacing it with eco-plastics such as polyethylene

See also


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