Down With Billboards

Billboards should not exist. They block views of neat pastoral cows, hills and barns in the country and fine old brickwork in the city. They seldom have a vocabulary of more than six words. And they entice you to buy whiskey when you’re really just in the neighborhood to buy bail bonds.

No, billboards are blunt, simpleminded and loud—blights on the landscape, visual and intellectual pollutants.

So, just when you’ve decided that in a saner world, billboards would be banished, you spot from a block away a lime-green iPod board —and you immediately congratulate yourself on being a connoisseur of both industrial design and music (are 10,000 songs really enough to reflect my protean tastes?), and then comes the second thought: Is my iPod charged?

Or perhaps you’re driving in Sonoma, and while it would be good for you spiritually to drink in the photogenic vineyards, you don’t mind seeing one of the Clover Dairy boards, with one of its loopy puns: “Tip-toe through Clo’s lips.”

And although art school taught you to hate the vulgarians who puff their messages into 800-point type, the thought crosses your mind that maybe that Altoids board was better art-directed than the strip mall it was blocking.

And while you’d never use art and advertising in the same sentence, you have to admit that some of the Mini Cooper boards have a kind of “installation” quality to them. Not that Alex Bogusky needs any more praise.

Of all forms of advertising—all of which is an imposition and ought to have the decency to be entertaining or at least interesting—outdoor advertising has the most to apologize for and the fewest ways to do it.

It has to make an impression with an absolute minimum of elements. A few words, a simple message, a tastelessly large logo or product shot.

The bad is as bad as it gets. But the good is consistently, surprisingly good.

For years, it’s been the democratic medium in which a quirky museum or a budget-busted zoo could stand right up next to, and outwit, a multinational marketer.

And it’s where big marketers can boil down a message that even muddle-brained middle brand managers can’t bloat.

Outdoor advertising also gives a kind of street credence and instant relevance to brands that maybe no other medium can.

Lately, one of our clients, the famously modest engineers of Hewlett-Packard, has begun appearing in outdoor in a big way, taking over all 160 boards in a subway station, running 15 minutes of content on an electronic board in Times Square, even posting 750-word art histories on a construction wall outside London’s National Gallery.

And as a result, HP seems bolder, more current, more surprising.

Not that the ends justify the means, of course.

Billboards should not exist.

There, it’s settled. All right-thinking people agree. Just don’t go anywhere you might see an iPod board. It might make you weak.

Because some billboards are really good, even if they are really wrong.

For the record: In Report Cards [April 12], IPG’s Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos and its C+ overall grade were inadvertently omitted from the list of grades by holding company.