Informing the Masses
By Al Albers
You can’t miss them, they’re everywhere; well, almost everywhere. They’re strategically placed in open fields, sometimes in between rows of trees in a not-so-open field, on hillsides, and on towering columns of steel. Billboards are seen and read by over 250 million people every day.
Though primarily found on the nation’s highways, they’re also on city thoroughfares where there are high concentrations of pedestrian traffic. Because these signs are read while being passed at high speeds, billboard messages have a minimal amount of words. They’re designed to quickly catch a person’s attention and, hopefully, leave the reader with a lasting impression.Whether it’s a small town or a large city, billboards are crucial to drawing business. They entice visitors to stop and get something to eat, to browse a bit in a local gift shop or specialty store, or to stay overnight at a local hotel or motel. And of course to subtly remind the driver to fill up the car’s gas tank before loading up and heading back onto the road.
Though the old-fashioned billboards are still the preferred method of advertising along a highway’s infrastructure, modern technology has changed the landscape where pedestrians casually stroll. Two prime examples: New York City’s “Times Square” (a.k.a. “The Crossroads of the World”), and flamboyant Las Vegas (a.k.a. “Sin City”). Here you’ll see pictures surrounded by a kaleidoscope of color and lights in a multitude of different shapes and sizes, and signs on top of signs. It’s an instant overdose of advertisements for the theatre district, television studios, restaurants, the NASDAQ, news crawls, casinos and other entertainment venues, to name but a few. While some may say that these electronic billboards are overkill, it’s this “pizzazz” that continually lures the myriad tourists to these cities.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve seen billboards that displayed the current weather conditions and the running tally for the lottery, as well as ones for car dealerships, retirement homes, fast-food outlets, banking institutions, colleges and universities.Some of the advertisements were bland, some were direct, and others were so creative they could easily win an award … if there is such a competition. However, the most incongruous one I’ve seen was in Norfolk, Virginia, alongside the eastbound lane of Interstate 64, approximately 100 yards from Exit 277.
It was bland (a black background with white letters), direct (six words), and it asked a question (“Do you know where you’re going?”).
Thought-provoking? Most definitely.
However, it’s not a question I’d want a driver to contemplate while attempting to navigate the on/off ramps and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on this extremely busy interstate highway. But what message was the artist trying to convey? The answer depends on the person reading it. For some, it might be crystal clear. For others, it could be as clear as mud. And some might even see a subliminal humor in posing such a novel question. The definitive answer – if there is one – is as mysterious as the question itself. What I do know is that six months later there was a new product being advertised. I wish I could tell you what it was, but I simply don’t remember.
When you think about it, in a way, this artist did something few others accomplish. He created a memorable sign that one driver – me – still remembers 15 years later. That’s powerful advertising.
These days, whenever I happen to be driving East on Interstate 64 and the billboard comes into view, I smile. Quite frankly, I don’t “see” the new advertisement. I still see that black sign with the six words in big white letters that asked, “Do you know where you’re going?”
As I pass by it – at high speed – I quickly glance to my right, nod my head and say, “Of course, I’m driving east!”