JC Penney can’t catch a break. First, their epic failure rebranding last year, and now they are in hot water after L.A. drivers found an uncanny likeness to Hitler in a designer teapot highway billboard. Some even claim that the ad copy spells out “Hitler”, (And by the by, there really is a Hitler teapot) Whether a poor joke by a wayward art director, or the vivid imaginings of a Rorschach inkblot, the controversy directed national attention to one of the oldest, tried-and-true methods of advertising: outdoor billboards.
I find it refreshing to see a blast of media coverage for this classic, humble marketing tactic, instead of some brand’s idiotic Tweet or digital campaign disaster. Billboards are a core part of America’s rich advertising history and larger than life on our city streets and highways. The Penney billboard ad also got me thinking about how these signs impact our daily driving lives, especially the ones that get our attention for better (or worse).
With that, ladies and gentlemen…here is my completely subjective list of some of the most controversial billboards as of late. Not surprisingly, the ones that raised the most eyebrows were focused on sex, religion, or politics. Less shocking is that most were taken down after driver complaints, some within 24 hours—but they did what they were supposed to do—get attention.
- Speaking of Hitler on a billboard (who would have ever thought those words would be strung together in a sentence), the real Hitler is featured in an electronic billboard in Atlanta “endorsing” President Obama even using original Hope campaign graphic elements. I’m guessing no one contacted the original designer on that one.
- With the national political gun control battle raging after an alarming number of U.S. shootings and deaths this year, a gun-advocate group (that wanted to be anonymous) was moved to get out the message about their “rights”. The billboard featured Native Americans to make a sarcastic point about gun ownership, also one of the most persecuted, exploited groups in our nation. Many Americans—Native and non-Native alike— were offended by this message.
- Here is one for the books, history to be exact: a billboard claiming that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican to convince African-Americans to vote GOP. When fact-checked, MLK was listed as a Republican only because, ironically, Democrats would not accept an African-American when he registered in 1956.
- The company behind a Wodka (Vodka) billboard with the super-classy message “Escort Quality, Hooker Pricing” might know its target market, but spoke too directly in the HuntsPoint neighborhood of the Bronx,which was in the midst of trying to shed its image as a prostitution destination. Though taken down, an identical sign remained at another location apparently not as sensitive to cheap escort messages.
- Eyewear maker Spy went for the double entendre ad on this Encinitas highway but ended up with numerous complaints instead. Known for their creative, freewheeling billboard advertising style, Spy found out this one was not a sight for sore eyes for driving passersby.
- This Get Layed billboard from a carpet and flooring vendor (get it?) caused quite the stir in its two locations in Connecticut. Maybe Valley Flooring was inspired by their store location on…wait for it: Rubber Road. I kid you not.
The Religion Right (and Wrong).
- Crossing both religion and politics, this billboard featured an image of Obama and accompanying biblical psalm, suggesting his ouster from the Presidential office. It garnered so much publicity, even the U.S. Secret Service investigated due to the eerily contemporary psalm reference “Let his days be few, and let another take his office.”
- This graphic anti-abortion campaign came to voters on mobile billboards in swing states during the 2012 Presidential election, featuring disturbing images of aborted fetuses. The oddly scientifically-named Center for Bio-Ethical Reform was behind the billboards.
- The final one stirring the outdoor billboard pot is actually anti-secular. In fact, of all billboards with a religion theme, those “preaching” atheism appear to be the most plentiful across the nation. Here are just a few of the hundreds, and many have received complaints: from providing emotional support to atheists, brought to you by the South Texas Coalition of Reason, to a San Diego group promoting atheism, or this one taken down after a day with its racially-charged overtones.
Bonus Bads Billboards.
And just for a bit of fun, here are some really (really) horrid billboards Justin Bieber to promoting minimum wage, or a collection of bad lawyer billboards and Ashley Madison (a website to find affair partners). I could go on…but this blog doesn’t have enough room.
So let us embrace the good, bad, and ugly of the Americana advertising tradition: no matter how far we’ve come in the digital age, we’ll still have our old school tradition of outdoor billboards as we drive along our city streets and highways. It’s like an old comfortable shoe that can still make us…very uncomfortable.