Few things are quite as Midwestern as long, open roads on monotonously flat stretches of land, broken up by fantastically mismatched billboards firmly staked along the roadside every couple of miles or so. The Oscar-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri leaves its audience with a lasting impression of this landscape, both artificial and natural.
Although the town, Ebbing, is fictional, every local component—the empty storefronts downtown, the modest, dusty police station, the small retail businesses in the outskirts—familiarizes the audience with the essentials of small towns in the Midwest. Set in a sleepy and almost charmless place, the film tells the story of a woman named Mildred Hayes who rents three derelict billboards to draw the police chief’s attention to solving the case of her daughter’s rape and murder.
Hayes posts three jarring messages in black and red, dissonant in the serene, natural backdrop. This fearless speech posted largely and loudly along the roadside seems rare yet familiar. But that’s no coincidence. Billboards, one of the most common yet subtly influential landmarks in the Midwest—and across the country—have been shaping the American landscape and vision for more than a century.
As an extremely conspicuous form of communication, billboards revolutionized the influence of pass-by public spaces, transforming otherwise unremarkable, transient miles of land into opportunities for open declarations of speech. Powerful yet subtle, these enormous signs infiltrate our fields of vision and consciousness. They tell stories across space and time while influencing public and private discourses. Even small voices—including Hayes and her controversial way of demanding justice—can be magnified and alter local realities. Featuring political ads, religious messages, local wonders, sports, health guidelines and so much more, billboards have become ingrained in the consciousness of a region and a nation.
Although there has been and continues to be controversy over the responsible use of roadside space, billboards remain prominent in the historical and contemporary American landscape. Billboards can easily be found in downtowns or small-town streets, but they seem most at home along otherwise deserted stretches of road; after the rapid growth of the American automobile industry, highways and freeways extended into almost every remote corner of the country, connecting urban areas with the countryside, the coasts with the interior. While the goal for drivers may be the end of the road, center stage is actually along the roads themselves, a display constantly in transition but influential nonetheless.
“The American Dream on Four Wheels”
The billboard’s beginnings can be traced back to billposting, which was mainly for theaters in urban settings. Although the British started leasing space for billposting nearly a decade before Americans did, the United States was the first to implement a standardized billboard structure solely dedicated to the purposes of posters and billposting, which allowed the advertisements to gain a certain authority over the space they occupied. The large-format American posters—measuring more than 50 square feet—originated in New York when Jared Bell placed multiple nine by six-foot posters together to create a larger-than-life advertisement for a circus in 1835.
Alongside the rapid development of urban culture and public space, the introduction of the automobile and subsequent infrastructural development drastically transformed American roadsides. With the increased mobility from this new mode of transportation, Americans began experiencing life in ways they never had before. As city and town centers quickly filled with jumbles of dazzling signs, the roads also opened up the countryside as a new location for businesses, residences and leisure. Facilitated by government projects, an expanding highway network allowed people to move around further, faster and more frequently.
This evolution was unprecedented and total.
“As the car came to be a routine part of the American way, the highway also became more than merely a route to be traveled,” writes history professor Catherine Gudis in her book Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape.
Ultimately, billboards along the way were filling their audiences’ fast-moving eyes during the dawn of an era that worshiped speed and efficiency. Drastically increased mobility also catalyzed economic growth, the free market providing seemingly endless new opportunities for expansion. Drivers and passengers became a profitable audience and the road a commercialized space for mass communication.
Besides boosting the outdoor advertising industry and creating miles and miles of new billboard opportunities, Gudis identifies another role the expanding highway network had in fostering new symbols in the American lifestyle: “Outdoor advertisers promoted a culture of mobility and tapped the traditional American mythology of the freedom of the open road,” she points out in her book, adding that “[t]hey helped construe automobility as the American Dream on four wheels, a key to the American Way.” Roads themselves have become symbols of freedom and mobility, as have the billboards that line them.
“I think that the physical mobility and the metaphorical mobility really work together,” Gudis said in an interview with Midstory.
In other words, a sense of mobility parallels a sense of possibility—social, economic and otherwise. As drivers and passengers fly by on open roads, they are constantly reminded of their potential for upward mobility within the “American dream.”
Signs & Social Movements in a Consumer Society
The word “advertising” comes from two Latin roots: “ad,” meaning “toward,” and “vertere” meaning “to turn.” The objective of advertising, therefore, is to turn the attention of potential buyers toward a product. Today, the 343,000 billboards in the United States are doing a very good job to that end; the annual revenue of billboard and sign manufacturing has remained at around $10 billion for the past 15 years.
They also operate as powerful tools to stimulate and reinforce ideas without requiring much literacy, background knowledge or long-term consideration from their audiences—in fact, they’re meant to be exactly that: accessible, simple and quick. Advancements in technology and aesthetics have amplified the effectiveness of the symbolic language billboards use; directly targeting specific audiences, billboards nowadays are selling personalities, lifestyles and identities beyond traditionally commodifiable things—perhaps a new “American dream.”
The idealized images—simple, dramatic and memorable—link commodities and the need to purchase with one’s identity. The visualization of people’s wants and needs helps them identify with the model, athlete or actor on the billboard, which ultimately encourages the purchase of the product promoted. Beyond the words, the pictures scream “Live For Now” and “Live Healthy” themselves.
“In conveying what people need and must have, the imagery itself becomes what they need and must continue to have, in the sense that the imagery is suggestive of what it means to live a ‘good life,’” Ron Lembo, Amherst College sociology professor, wrote in an email to Midstory.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by consumer research company Nielsen Audio, Americans spend an average of 17,600 minutes in their cars every year (more than 293 hours annually). Two-thirds of the respondents reported seeing a billboard in the past month; 80% of billboard viewers looked at the advertising message some of the time, and half did it all the time. In some ways, billboards are difficult not to notice—bright spots of color, image and text on otherwise unvarying landscapes.
In Gudis’ eyes, highways have evolved into “buyways”; markets today are “place-less, decentralized, and sojourning along every road.” As people have become deluged by visual stimulation, outdoor advertisers have come to see drivers and passengers as mobile markets on the road.
“In so spreading the market, these forces have altered the ways we experience very basic things, including nature, the landscape, community, images, words, architecture and even abstract space and time,” Gudis said.
In many places, the content and style of billboards also reflect the social norms and cultural shifts of a particular region. The billboards promote certain ideologies, encouraging response and even acceptance from their audiences. In other words, aesthetic values can convey ethical values. There are many examples of billboards using their platforms for public service and raising awareness of crucial social problems. In using values accepted and affirmed by a culture or a subculture as their themes, billboards shape the American consciousness.
In light of the increasingly active and public social movements, many corporations have also found billboards to be a loud and convenient way to show symbolic support, inciting controversy around using social movements as opportunities for advertising; some argue that companies that participate in this “performance activism” haven’t shown any or enough effort in pursuing substantial change, and that by putting a price on causes such as “Black Lives Matter,” the corporations commodify the social issues themselves.
“Despite a trans-national rebellion,” Gudis said, “I also have watched the parade of consumption as part of this spectacle of protest.”
Gudis also noted that companies often turn to large-scale advertising during moments of social crisis because they recognize firstly that the movements create a market from which they could potentially profit, and secondly that if they don’t show solidarity, their market could be imperiled.
Regardless of intent, however, Gudis also sees the benefit of utilizing billboard space for social awareness—the literally massive presence of the messages compels people to reflect.
“I’ve been thinking a lot of the ways in which the image of protests actually is leading people to do something that they may not have thought about doing before,” Gudis said. “I think the image—the vision of it—circulating is enabling that.”
The Future of Billboards in the American Landscape
Outdoor advertising has altered the physical landscape and the perceptual understanding of both markets and public space. Starting as individually-employed men and women sticking theater posters all over city walls, almost two centuries later, many outdoor advertisers have evolved into global multimedia giants. Technological advances have allowed billboards to become even more versatile and pervasive.
For example, in addition to the now widely-used video screens for animated ads, some digital billboards in Times Square can collect ID numbers from the cell phones of people nearby and update the ads according to this stream of gathered data. The unprecedented connectivity of today’s society also means people can hardly remain anonymous anymore, and advertising is absolutely taking advantage of that.
“In many ways, it’s going to continue along these same patterns and that we need to think about outdoor advertising as what’s inside of our houses and on our media devices,” Gudis said. “Advertising aims to make you more you than you ever knew you were.”
Advertisements demonstrate the evolution of cultural values in the symbolism they embrace––they not only tell people who they are but who they want to be.
A film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, despite its fictional elements, directly demonstrates the power large-scale advertising holds, not just for companies, but also for individuals and social movements alike. Mildred Hayes turns billboards into a shaming vehicle for justice; they not only transform the natural landscape of this rural small town but also influence individual character paths and upend the entire town’s social dynamics.
While Mildred’s billboards seem to have a pretty clear and loud message, upon seeing them, police officer Dixion questions the painter about their purpose. And the painter replies: “…something obscure.”
What are we advertising? And what should we advertise? Ever-evolving consumer culture and increasingly-pervasive social movements have both reinforced the traditional power of billboards, reflecting and influencing American values, and transformed their use, intertwining consumer culture and social movements. But as much as billboards represent markets and movements, they can also amplify otherwise quiet voices—for better or for worse. While our surrounding imagery influences us in ways we may not see, Gudis insists that what we do with that information matters most.
“There is still some form of humanism in which we have the free will and freedom to form thoughts,” Gudis said. “At least we are a little further upstream than we were before.”