As a general proposition, I support billboards.  As a general proposition.  Billboards help ME when I need to find an interstate exit with my favorite fast food and a bathroom.  Billboards help me find hotels when traveling long distances. Yes, sometimes the blue signs with 6 different hotel or restaurant logos work just fine, but sometimes I want the information miles in advance.

             As you might imagine, there is a “however” built into my first sentence.

             The case for regulating any industry is usually made by the industry itself, not third-party meddlers.  If all restaurant owners operated sanitary kitchens, health inspectors would not be needed.  If some banks and finance companies hadn’t been, at times, unscrupulous, we wouldn’t need finance consumer protection laws. 

             Regulations usually come in cases of singular excess or gross negligence, and it seems the only way to close the barn door after one horse has escaped is to regulate the entire industry. 

             Billboards.  However.

             Two weekends ago I returned home from Pine Knoll Shores, traveling the familiar route along Highway 70.  The 100 mile stretch from Morehead City to Goldsboro is a billboard industry mecca.  If you’re not advertizing on a billboard you don’t exist.  My guess is that the 2010 census would reveal as many billboards on Highway 70 as there are people living east of I-95.

             But that’s not really my point. Yes, it’s an extremely ugly stretch of highway, and billboards are more than half of the ugliness.  Too many. Too close.  Too garish. Many of them are damaged and needing repair.  But I’m not calling on those local governments to control an industry so that I have a pretty drive home.

             My point is that the industry itself is doing a good job of asking local governments to consider when enough is enough. 

             Case in point.  A few miles west of Havelock you encounter a black and gold billboard advertizing Johnson Lexus in Raleigh and Durham. One hundred yards later you encounter another black and gold billboard advertizing Johnson Lexus in Raleigh and Durham. And after yet another 100 yards you see the identical billboard.  And after yet another 100 yards you see the identical billboard.  One half mile.  Nine identical billboards.

             I’ve only used the company’s name twice and without looking back at the preceding paragraph you can tell me exactly what company I described.  You do not need me to write

 Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

Johnson Lexus

 in order for you to remember the company’s name.  And you certainly don’t need these billboards to assist you in finding local businesses and services near the highway.  These dealerships are more than 100 miles away. After a while, instead of reading “Johnson Lexus,” I read

 Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

Regulate Me!

 

View showing some of the Johnson Lexus signs along Highway 70

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            So that we are clear, I find no fault with Johnson Lexus.  In fact, I commend the company for strategically using media available to get its name in front of buyers.  They probably have excellent data on the number of higher income potential Lexus customers in their market who travel Highway 70 to the beach and back. Johnson Lexus knows, as do all political candidates and all companies entering any market, that advertising must be done continuously in order to penetrate our collective consciousness.  The perceived return on investment from these billboards must be high because they only had about four of the identical billboards in this stretch several years ago.

             And so that we are even clearer, I find no fault with the billboard industry for making the most of what local governments allow it to do.  But the point of insane saturation is clearly approaching if it is not already here.  The industry can’t flirt with such heavy bombardments of in-your-face visual clutter beside the publics’ right of way and then claim indignation when the political tide shifts in one of the local cities or counties and billboards are amortized.

             The latest trend now is to illuminate billboard faces with high definition brightly lit displays that change every few seconds.  The same billboard now advertizes multiple companies in sequence.

             What used to be a static image with a couple of muted spotlights is now a changeable Times Square marquee.  If all billboards along Highway 70 – or even some arbitrarily stated fraction – were illuminated, it would be like driving through New York’s brightly lit and sign-crazy Chinatown at 45 to 55 miles per hour for almost 100 miles.

             Billboards are a form of real estate development where space is leased, although zoning ordinances often regulate them as signage in the same category as the name of the company on its building’s Main Street awning.  In our auto-dependent world, highway information signs serve a function (although that same function is increasingly being served by smart phones and ipads, which, over time, may obviate the need for highway signage at all).

             I’ll continue to drive along Highway 70 despite the (growing) number of billboards.  But I’ll be watching with interest when the locals perceive the tipping point to have been reached.

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