Morton Marcus: Billboards: information or intrusion?

Morton Marcus Submitted photo

Drive along some of Indiana’s interstates and a single fact becomes evident: There are large numbers of persons on the road with you who are sexually deprived or unsatisfied. How else can you explain all those ads for “adult” literature and apparatus? Freudians would likewise see the many billboards for fireworks as appealing to suppressed libidos.

Billboards are unlike other advertisements. You cannot avoid them. They enter your line of sight and are a distraction. But they also provide information, often desired and welcome information.

That’s the tradeoff: Information vs. intrusion. Some will escalate the discussion by arguing freedom of speech and property rights of land owners are at stake when regulation of billboards is under consideration.

Newspapers, television, magazines, cellphones, your computer screen all are carriers of advertising. However, there is a difference. You and I invite those media into our lives.

We can choose to ignore advertisements or to study them in detail. With billboards, we do not choose to be informed about Kitty’s Krunchy Karamels, Fred’s Fearsome Fireworks, or George’s Gents’ Grotto. Yet, it’s good to know a Bilge Burger is just ahead.

Fred Flintstone did not travel at 70 mph and had few means of knowing what businesses were available. Cellphones reduced the need for billboards. Even alone in his over-sized SUV, today’s Fred can ask his audio assistant for the nearest taqueria.

On the public roads, you and I are subjected to the will and whim of landowners, billboard companies and the advertisers. Billboards are designed to attract our attention. They are successful at doing that. Yet they are pollution for our eyes as they obstruct our view of the neighborhoods and scenery of urban and rural areas.

It’s bad enough highway departments nationwide plant trees and build walls that keep drivers from seeing where they are. Thus rural squalor is easily hidden and suburban housing, inappropriately built after the highway was constructed, is “protected” from the sound and sight of commerce.

Many cities and states have stringent regulations applying to billboards. The size, content, placement and density of billboards are subject to regulation, but that does not mean such regulation is enforced.

Grandfathering existing billboards is a convenient way to increase their value and discourage new billboards. Often, disruptive aspects of existing billboards are neglected by such grandfathering. In addition, assessment practices for property taxes on billboards are highly variable.

Some billboards are witty and provide a chuckle. Some threaten us with eternal damnation if we don’t follow their dictates. Some digital signs change as we drive along and distract us with their bright colors and confuse us with their fleeting messages.

The absence of billboards is rarely noted. The presence of billboards is too often a shoddy representation of a community with little respect for itself and its visitors.

Mr. Marcus is an economist. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow his views and those of John Guy on “Who gets what?” wherever podcasts are available or at Send comments to [email protected]