America’s Billboard Problem, Part 1

You know what I simply cannot stand?


Well, advertising in general grinds my gears, but billboards are a special kind of disgusting. We could be looking at trees, instead we’re looking at ads for products most of us either do not care about or – perhaps more importantly – need no reminder of. The U.S. is terrible in this regard – terrible to a point that approaches making Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil and its images of roads lined with never-ending advertisements a reality. In Brazil the billboards are used as a tool to block the urban inhabitants from seeing the wasteland that surrounds their population centers. This feels more and more like an eventual reality to me and it frightens me and I feel that I must say it’s gotten to the point that something needs to be done about it.

But what?

First of all, who can’t think of the episode of the Simpsons* where Homer wakes for work – an otherwise dreadful event – excited to drive to the powerplant on ‘New Billboard Day’. Matt Groening’s wonderful cartoon buffoon drives to work with his head hanging out the window like a Labrador Retriever, lapping up all of the new products the billboards are instructing him to buy/trust.

Now I understand that it may be slightly ridiculous to write a critique of advertising while quoting from a television show, but bear with me. If you’ve seen that early-ninties episode of The Simpsons then you’re on the same page. And do you know why you can’t not think of that episode? Because Homer is lampooning exactly what marketers and advertisers think of us. They think we will reflect on their loud, colorful, shocking and sometimes upsetting words and images and act on them – whether that means going out and buying an 18 pack of shitty domestic pilsner and thinking to yourself as you swill it “yeah, they’re right – there is more flavor!” (WRONG), thinking that the new burger at such and such fast food restaurant really will be as healthy as they say it is or going out getting the disgusting, human race-betraying lap band** surgery in order to lose some weight.

Does that piss you off? That executives in boardrooms somewhere think you’re no smarter or able to control your ID than Homer Simpson?

It should.

The trouble is, what do we do about it? This is the question. I don’t want to rabble rouse and say, ‘go out and hack through the legs of a billboard near you’ because that kind of’ rebellion is stupid; A) you’re gonna get caught and get a serious fine or go to jail and B) where’s that thing gonna land when it falls, and more importantly, on who? There are consequences to actions and knowing that will do you well in your time on this tiny, frail planet. But seriously, have things gone so far that if enough of us banded together in some way we couldn’t eliminate the problem? But how? What do we do?

First I guess I’ll ask that if anyone reads this and dislikes billboards as much as I do you leave a comment, even if only to say “yep”. Then… I guess we’ll see.

There was a lot of talk a few months ago about the ineffectiveness of the “Occupy Wallstreet” movement, but I’ll tell you what, at least those folks were doing something (and many of them had the right idea). One of my major problems is I am partly a pessimist and as such I tend to think the economy – or most anything else wrong with the world today – is not fixable, first and foremost because there are far too many people on this planet and the population-choke gums up all due process or systematic management of affairs – whether global, domestic or even personal – and works against change most of all. Also factor in that via technology most ‘movements’ end up exactly like this blog – a virtual act of rebuttal or rebellion that never quite makes it off the digital page. What would I do if two hundred people commented here and said, “Yep”?

I don’t know. That’s the problem. So I’m also open to suggestions.

In researching the writing of this little proposal/reflection I encountered several like-minded entities/projects that are out there and represent possible allies/first steps/catalysts in actually making this something more than me whining into a keyboard. Here’s a few of them:


Yes, I am most definitely aware that there are waaaaayyy bigger problems in the world, but like I said, I’m just as guilty of not doing anything (obviously. Again, I writing this instead of physically doing something) as the majority. But one step at a time, right? I want to see… let’s just say I want to see, okay?

I’m going to post a copy of this on a few other sites I freqent and see what others think as well. The ultimate goal, in a situation where others were interested in pursuing trying to do something about this would be to influence someone in office or find someone running for some kind of local office, here- there- anywhere, with part of a much more comprehensive platform addressing some of those way more important problems and shoot for something like a ‘REPLACE ALL BILLBOARDS WITH TREES’ bill.

But we’ll see.

And yes, I recognize that with an economy in the shape it’s in, billboards represent the end result of a lot of people’s jobs (remember what I said earlier about being aware of your actions’ consequences. ALL of them) And we don’t want to lose anymore jobs. But the other end of the idea is, I suppose, similar to big Oil – when there’s a problem and a resultant change you make the source of the problem change in a way that will require those jobs to tranistion and carry through the new protocols implemented. I’m not suggesting we go after peoples’ careers, just that we change them to benefit the world we live in.

Oh, idealism… always leaves you open for criticism, eh? Yet still we mush.


* And what does it say that I’m referencing real life to a cartoon?

** And as I’m publishing my words on a global platform (the internet) I recognize that this last example, the lap band, may be a very distinctly American and possibly even more distinctly Californian phenomena, but everyone should be aware of it, because it’s a disturbing reality that weight loss-via-surgery is a marketed product now.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.