Sex, Religion, Politics (and a Hitler teapot): Controversial Billboards Revisited

hitler teapotJC 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.

Political Fodder.

  • 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.

 Bad Sex.

  • 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).

  • 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.

Bonus Bads Billboards.

Justin-Bieber-Featured-On-Anti-Minimum-Wage-Increase-Billboard-In-Los-AngelesAnd 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.



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