It’s the Sheets: A Short History of Billboard Advertising

Over the years (just which years exactly are up for debate), we’ve seen innovations in billboards from mechanical movement (smoke rings emanating from the Marlboro Man’s mouth) to 3D (Chick-Fil-A cows touching up their message thanks to paintbrushes and scaffolding) to extensions (Michael Jordan in mid-dunk, his body visible far beyond his billboards 14 x 48 confines) to engaging the immediate area for additional emphasis (Bic’s larger-than-life-size razor leaning against its billboard, appearing to have “smoothly shaved” a row of tall grass in a field).

Say what you will about these intriguing, entertaining eyesores, but as long as there are people continue to drive in cars, billboards will remain a viable, affordable marketing tool, promising high levels of frequency, 24/7/365 availability, and untold amounts of perplexity.

  • 1000 BC (give or take) -  Some of the first forms of billboards were displayed in the ancient city of Thebes. Egyptians chiseled messages (mostly announcing new laws) onto tall stones which were displayed in highly-populated public squares.

  • 1440 – Again, huge props to Johannes Gutenberg – which advanced humanity from chiseling and painting to print and typography.

  • 1796 – Lithography was invented, marrying word with image, and making real posters possible.

  • 1830 – In the early 1830s, large painted signs were a common site through American towns, promoting everything from horse blankets to miracle cures. But it was Jared Bell that moved billboards forward in a big way when, in 1835, he created the large format American poster. Some measuring more than 50 square feet, his vividly illustrated and colorful circus posters became the standard for audacious promotion and bombastic showmanship.

  • 1867 – Earliest known occurrence of renting a billboard.

  • 1871 - Fredrick Walker, an English realist painter, designed one of the first art posters.

  • 1872 – The first billboard lobbying group, International Bill Posters Association of North America was established. Today they are known as the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

  • 1889 – The world's first 24 sheet (roughly 20’ x 9’) billboard was displayed at the Paris Exposition, a format that became widely used, especially for circuses and movies.

  • 1908 – The U.S. is introduced to the Model T automobile, allowing thousands of people to travel on highways and back roads, thus creating the new opportunity of roadside billboards.

  • 1925 - In response to the opportunity created by Ford, Burma Shave (famous for its brushless shaving cream) becomes the first—and best—example of target marketing. With speeds averaging 35 mph, and without distractions such as a car stereo or roadside attractions, boredom was common among motorists. Capitalizing on this, Burma Shave’s series of humorous messages along the roadside (that were spaced apart and culminated with a punch line) were a source of delight and entertainment. And for nearly 40 years, the Burma Shave campaign was one of the most popular and successful in the history of advertising. Examples included: Shaving brushes….You'll soon see 'em…On a shelf…In some museum…Burma-Shave. And: In this world….Of toil and sin…Your head grows bald…But not your chin…Burma-Shave.

  • 1935 – One of the first neon signs, featuring the Glico Running Man, was displayed along a canal in Osaka, Japan. One variation or another of this candy company’s character has remained up since then, and has become an unofficial symbol of the city.

  • 1936 – The first billboards for Wall Drug Store go up nationwide. In a last-ditch effort to drum up business for his floundering Drug Store, Ted Hustead decided to create a billboard with the simple promise of free ice water to thirsty travelers. Overnight, their business boomed. Later while vacationing in London, Hustead hung a sign in the London Underground informing commuters that Wall Drugs was only 5,160 miles away. He began receiving up to twenty letters a day from curious Brits and to this day, “How Many Miles to Wall Drug?” signs are still a common curiosity across America – and throughout Europe.

  • 1965 – After much complaining of the eyesore billboards presented, and after much campaigning with the full weight of the White House behind her, Lady Bird Johnson spearheaded the passage of the Highway Beautification Act, which called to remove certain types of billboards along interstates and control the addition of new billboard locations.

  • 1990s – Digital technology was first introduced to the outdoor industry.

  • 2007 – Digital billboard are allowed on U.S. interstate highways. Today, nearly all 50 states have them, and more than 7,000 have been put into use.

  • 2010 – To promote the sale of beef, the Bloom Grocery chain of Mooresville, North Carolina erected the first "scented billboard," which emitting odors similar to charcoal and black pepper to suggest a steak grilling.
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