Billboard is the common term used to describe a type of outdoor advertising found along major highways. This name is most frequently given to large steel-framed signs, which are mounted on poles 20-100 ft (6.1-30.5 m) above the ground. Most often, the sign is printed on large poster sheets, which are affixed to the face of the sign. These signs may also be equipped with a variety of special lighting and display effects. This type of sign is one component of a unique advertising medium that communicates to audiences on the go. Such promotions are also referred to as "out of home" advertising because the intended audience is usually in transit, and is always away from their homes. As recently as 25 years ago, 90% of outdoor advertising consisted of billboards. Today, the industry has expanded to include smaller signs on bus shelters, kiosks, and malls. There are over 500 companies nationwide that specialize in this type of advertising (although not all of them construct large road-side billboards.) The Federal Highway Administration estimates that in 1996 there were over 400,000 billboards on federally controlled roads, which generated revenues in excess of $1.96 billion. According to Competitive Media Reporting the top 10 billboard revenue categories for 1996 included: entertainment and amusements; tobacco; retail; business and consumer services; automotive; travel, hotels and resorts; publishing and media; beer and wine; insurance and real estate; and drugs and remedies.
Born out of necessity, billboards were probably first used to convey a message to the majority of individuals who were illiterate. The oldest known billboard ad was posted in the Egyptian city of Thebes over 3,000 years ago and offered a reward for a runaway slave. Prior to the late 1700s, the predecessor to the modern day billboard—billposting—was prevalent throughout Europe, but only as an informal source of information. It wasn't until the invention of lithography in the late eighteenth century that billboards as a medium expanded into an art form. The first art poster was created in 1871 by Englishman Frederick Walker, who was commissioned to create the playbill for the play "Lady in White" in London. By the early 1900s, schools for poster art were being formed and artists like Talouse Lautrec were making names for themselves.
The first large scale use of the billboard as an advertising tool was as circus posters printed or secured on horse-drawn trucks that would precede a show to town in order to increase interest and attendance. At this time, billboards were not standardized or controlled by any laws. During 1872-1912, organizations in the United States met to create billboard standards. Originally, the standard set was 24-sheet poster panels with a total size of 19.5 x 8.7 ft (6 x 2.6 m). Today, that size remains the same, while technology has reduced 24 sheets to 10.
It was also during the early 1900s that electric billboards were used to light up cities. Prior to the electric billboard, cities were dark, foreboding places. The electric bill-board brought the cities to life at night, creating a more hospitable atmosphere that induced people to stay on the streets. Hence, the birth of nightlife.
By the late 1920s, more people were purchasing automobiles and traveling beyond the city. Billboard advertising expanded as well, and for the first time, billboard advertising had to consider a wider range of demographic audiences. Billboard art and design changed with the times, reflecting new technologies and the mood of a generation. With the use of photography and comics, billboards portrayed a world without problems during the depression of the 1930s. The 1950s gave rise to the hand-painted billboard and use of sexual innuendo in campaigns. Billboards were extensively used in China to promote Red Army politics. It was also during this time that billboard companies utilized the boom truck with a crane to move billboards and place them in more prominent positions. During the 1960s, celebrity endorsements became essential and the advent of the superstar was born. Focus shifted from the family to the singles lifestyle and the medium itself was emulated in the Pop Art movement. As interest in environmentalism increased during the late 1960s and early 1970s, billboard ads borrowed images from nature. It was at this time that the Marlboro man on horseback was born. In the 1970s and 1980s, campaigns used sexually explicit rather than implied themes. Objects were omnipotent and were created larger than life with little or no accompanying text.
Billboard design depends on such factors as location of the sign, the advertising budget, and the type of product being promoted. The industry uses market research firms to aid in the design process. These firms supply detailed information on the number of people in vehicles in different metropolitan regions, even projecting traffic patterns 10-15 years into the future. They can estimate the frequency and number of exposures the advertising will have upon its target audience. Using data generated by Global Positioning Systems (GPS), billboard location data can be merged with other geographic and demographic business information to create customized marketing solutions for outdoor advertisers. Computerized data analysis is available that incorporates census data, traffic origins, travel patterns, trading zones, competitor locations, and other key facts to help optimize the use and location of billboards.
The location of the billboard also helps determine the type of sign selected by the advertiser. The term billboard is actually a generic classification, referring to several types of signs. The most common forms are known as bulletins and poster panels. Bulletins, the largest sign style, may be as large as 20 x 60 ft (6.1 x 18.3 m) and are found in high-density traffic locations. They use computer or hand-painted messages as advertising artwork and are usually purchased for multi-month contract periods. Poster panels are somewhat smaller and are designated by the number of sheets employed on the sign. Thirty-sheet poster panels are approximately 12 x 25 ft (3.6 x 7.6 m) and are found on primary and secondary traffic ways. They are lithograph- or silkscreen-printed and are usually displayed for 30 days. Eight sheets are somewhat smaller (6 x 12 ft [1.8 x 3.6 m]) and are designed more for pedestrian and some vehicular traffic. They are placed in high-density urban neighborhoods and suburban shopping malls. The larger bulletin style is the most challenging type to construct.
Large billboards have three main components: steel used to construct and support the frame, artwork that conveys the advertising message, and electrical equipment for lighting and other special effects.
Modern billboards, also known as monopoles, are supported by steel poles ranging from 36-72 in (91.4-183 cm) in diameter and up to 100 ft (30.5 m) tall. At the top of the mounting pole is a frame constructed from steel I-beams. This frame supports the artwork and lighting equipment. Standard sizes for a large steel frame assembly are 20 x 60 ft (6.1 x 18.3 m), 20 x 48 ft (6.1 x 14.6 m), or 10 x 36 ft (3 x 11 m). When a company is interested in constructing one of these signs, they contact a steel erection firm with expertise in billboard construction. Typically, a customer will seek bids from three or four competitive vendors. These bids estimate the cost of designing the sign as well as the materials, transportation, and labor used to construct it. Some smaller billboards may be available from the steel company as
The steel frame is covered with a backing material, known as a facing. The artwork is affixed to the facing. The art is either preprinted on paper or vinyl sheets that are pasted onto the facing, or in some cases, the art is painted directly onto a plywood or canvas facing.
Most billboards are electrically lit and therefore require appropriate lighting and power systems along with a significant number of high wattage bulbs. Activation of these lighting systems is no simple matter. While many billboards are located in major metropolitan areas, others can be found in remote areas along interstates. In both cases, it is very impractical to have to travel to each sign every night to turn on the lights. Therefore, automatic switches have been developed to turn on the lights at specified times. Other systems use photosensitive cells to turn on the lights when dusk sets. Still other more advanced systems turn lights on and off electronically with a signal from a satellite system.
Billboard manufacture requires three separate types of contractors. First, a steel erection
The artwork is added after the structural elements are in place. The method of application depends on the design of the sign. Some advertisements are hand painted directly onto plywood sections that are directly attached to the billboard frame; others use lithographic prints prepared on large vinyl sheets, which are pasted onto the sign face. Usually, hand-painted billboards are used for small campaigns that want to achieve a higher quality look.
There are no universal guidelines for billboard construction. Each company has its own proprietary standards. However, firms engaged in this type of work expend significant effort in repairing and maintaining the quality of the signs. These efforts are necessary due to the effects of weathering which causes deterioration of the sign components, particularly the paper and vinyl used to post the artwork. In addition, steel components can rust after extended exposure to the elements. Severe weather conditions can cause damage to signs that require more serious repairs.
In 1965, the Highway Beautification Act was passed in the United States. It governs the amount, spacing, and quality of bill-boards placed along highways. As a result, many dilapidated frames were removed. In the late 1990s, cigarette manufacturers, who traditionally used billboards to advertise their products, made an agreement with the federal government in order to prevent total regulation of the industry. One of their concessions was to replace their ads with anti-smoking campaigns.
The processes used in billboard manufacture generate little usable byproducts or waste material. However, after a billboard has outlived its usefulness a steel firm may be required to cut the sign down. In some cases, the components may be recycled for use in other jobs.
Billboard manufacture is becoming increasingly sophisticated. More and more sign companies are taking advantage of computerized market research data to optimize the placement of their billboards. This trend is likely to continue as marketers continue to seek out the most effective advertising mediums. Bar coding technology is becoming a popular way of tracking information related to billboards. Some companies even videotape their signs and put together a computer display for their clients so they can just click on a location and see a picture or video of the billboard that is there. Satellite technology will also play a larger role in the billboard market of the future. Already satellite systems are being used to control lighting and to track sign locations.
However, perhaps the most interesting innovations in the industry are occurring in the area of advertising artwork. For example, one new type of sign uses a multi-faceted prismatic facing to actually deliver two different advertising messages. As the viewer approaches the sign, they see one picture, but as they pass the sign, their angle of view changes, revealing a different picture. This type of clever innovation continues to make billboards a popular and economically viable method of advertising.
Henderson, Sally and Robert Landau. Billboard Art. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1986.
Erected Steel Products. Steve McDowell, VP Operations. PO Box 360347, Birningham, AL 35236. (205) 481-3700.
— Randy Schueller