on the range

How hand-painted billboards turned a South Dakota pharmacy into one of the country's largest tourist empires

Story and photography by Ethan Jakob Craft Published on September 24, 2020

on the range

How hand-painted billboards turned a South Dakota pharmacy into one of the country's largest tourist empires

Story and photography by Ethan Jakob Craft Published on September 24, 2020

It started with a gimmick, but it turned into a testament for outdoor advertising that has endured for almost 90 years. 

When new parents Ted and Dorothy Hustead sought to grow their family in 1931, the couple had two requirements for where they wanted to settle down: It had to be a small town with a Catholic church. Wall, South Dakota, a poor prairie outpost on the edge of the badlands, ticked both boxes. And with the town's fledgling drugstore for sale, Ted, a college-trained pharmacist, snapped up the business using a modest inheritance.

Years of hard luck went by for them in the Dust Bowl. The townsfolk—mostly drought-starved farming families—formed the bulk of the pharmacy’s early clientele, but locals had little cash to spend. Hordes of potential customers bypassed Wall in the thick of the Great Depression, trundling east-to-west down Route 16A toward Yellowstone or a half-sculpted Mount Rushmore, but few ever stopped. It wasn't until a sweltering July afternoon in 1936 that Dorothy had the idea that would revolutionize the Wall Drug Store.

"‘Well, now what is it that those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They're thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water! Now we've got plenty of ice and water,’” Ted, who died in 1999, recalled his wife saying to Guideposts magazine in the early ‘80s. “‘Why don't we put up signs on the highway telling people to come here for free ice water?’”

The next weekend, he and a local high school student erected seven Wall Drug signs along nearby Route 16A, spaced out in the style of an old Burma-Shave ad. “Get a soda/Get a beer/Turn next corner/Just as near/To Highway 16 and 14/Free ice water/Wall Drug,” they read in sequence. To Ted’s shock, they were an instant hit; by the time he returned to the store, customers were already lined up for their free glasses of water.

Approaching Wall, S.D., from either direction along I-90, the frequency of billboards skyrockets from about one per mile to dozens at a time.

On the road again

Within a few decades, Wall Drug’s ad dominance peaked at approximately 3,000 far-flung billboards in all 50 states, cloaking the nation’s highway network in a veil of kitschy out-of-home for the store that bills itself as “America’s No. 1 roadside attraction.”

Clearly, the signs work. Wall Drug now welcomes as many as 2.2 million tourists in an average year, which puts it in the running for most-visited place in South Dakota. Exact numbers fluctuate year-to-year, but in 2019, runner-up Mount Rushmore clocked 1.96 million visitors, while the state’s two national parks, Badlands and Wind Cave, each saw fewer than a million apiece, according to the National Park Service.

“When you’re on the highway, with the wide-open spaces, you’re looking for things to interact with,” says Mark Glissendorf, senior VP of operations and public relations at Lawrence & Schiller, the state’s largest ad agency. Out-of-home can be a powerful medium in the vast, featureless distances of the Midwest, he adds, with a “tremendous” amount of impressions able to be generated from a placement next to major Interstate corridors. “Billboards should not be overlooked.”

The first half of 2020 saw out-of-home, long a steadfast component of any well-rounded ad strategy, struggle with a wave of sudden lockdowns and storefront closures. Many brands quickly pivoted to digital-only ad strategies while Wall Drug's billboards, almost all of which are permanent installations, beckoned empty highways. But as the coronavirus came to be better understood and consumers got cabin fever, the great American road trip saw a massive resurgence—and with it returned impressions generated by out-of-home marketing.

Frightened off by the famously sardine-like confines of cramped airliners, many Americans looking for a getaway this summer hit the road en masse; RV rental companies have seen an upswing in bookings and some national parks, such as Yosemite, have introduced permit quotas to prevent overcrowding.

"Travelers are taking to the road this summer in order to remain socially distanced as they travel to their summer getaway," Chris Carnicelli, CEO of travel insurance provider Generali Global Assistance, said in a statement. According to a survey conducted earlier this summer by Ipsos for Generali, 73 percent of Americans said they'd prefer to travel by car on a domestic vacation this year, versus 23 percent who said air travel would be their go-to.

Wall Drug’s 80-foot dinosaur—one of the store’s zanier ploys to bring travelers in off the highway—stands on a hill at the edge of town.

Sign of the times

“For anyone who doubts the power of advertising, I think Wall Drug is a great case study,” says James Hagen, Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tourism. Like many people raised in or around The Mount Rushmore State, Hagen’s first visit to the emporium of tchotchkes and western wear was on a family vacation as a child, lured by the billboards’ promises: An 80-foot dinosaur, 10,000 pairs of cowboy boots, homemade ice cream, free water—all just ahead. “There’s no question they work,” he says.

The monolithic store's billboards speak volumes for the out-of-home ad industry, which GroupM says will hit $7.1 billion in revenue next year. They're simple, painted wood, and they can be shockingly frequent in some parts of the state. On the 50-mile stretch of highway between regional hub Rapid City and Wall alone, there’s an average of one Wall Drug billboard every 4,000 feet—which helps pique drivers’ interest and build anticipation, says South Dakota State University professor Roxanne Lucchesi, who coordinates the school’s advertising major. 

Whether it’s touting a free product, a quaint limerick or a roadside curio, Wall Drug’s signs—an unorthodox ad strategy for a business of its size—have an undeniable draw for travelers. “I think the medium is the message, and copywriting is very important,” Lucchesi says.

“It’s kind of one of those places that, if you’re going across the state, people ask, ‘Did you stop at Wall Drug?’ If you say no, they’re a little bit disappointed.”

It'd be hard for a driver to miss the store, which starts advertising itself hundreds of miles away. Wall Drug is omnipresent; a flood of billboards and bumper stickers asking, “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” abounds, so pervasive and alluring that Target Marketing estimates up to 70 percent of non-commercial traffic on Interstate 90, the successor to Old 16A, exits at Wall. But today’s sea of slab serif advertising is just a drop in the bucket of what it once was.

In 1965, Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act threatened to gut the store’s business by removing swaths of roadside out-of-home. Billboards across the country came down by the hundreds, though the bill’s impact was hardly as comprehensive as Johnson imagined, thanks to lax enforcement and hard-fought lobbying. Dwindling from its mid-century high, Wall Drug continues to maintain roughly 300 signs in South Dakota, plus a few dozen in Wyoming and Minnesota on either side of the state line.

Retail expansions in the later half of the 20th century turned Wall Drug into nearly a full city block of amusements, souvenirs and photo ops.

Have you dug Wall Drug?

As the number of visitors to Wall Drug grew, so did the store's footprint, with the Hustead family quickly establishing it as the waypoint on the rural 350-mile stretch of road connecting the state’s two largest cities. 

Although its nationwide ad frequency trended downward during the Johnson administration, expansions in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s turned the mom-and-pop apothecary into a destination of its own. Wall Drug gradually added a dining room, a doughnut factory, a souvenir outlet store and more, all while giving away countless gallons of ice water to thousands (and eventually millions) of travelers.

“‘Free’ is the most powerful marketing word in the language. In the retail world, you need to create an experience. If you’re not selling a necessity, you need to create something where you enjoy what you see,” says Glissendorf, a life-long South Dakotan, who believes Wall Drug has “better out-of-home than anybody else I can think of.” 

Save for Wall Drug’s fully functioning pharmacy, which has sold basic sundries and filled prescriptions for the past 89 years, “There’s very few things in there that are necessities,” Glissendorf adds. “But there’s something in there for everybody.”

The animatronic Chuck Wagon Quartet springs to life every so often to belt out classic country tunes; their counterpart, Ted Hustead’s Cowboy Orchestra, does the same in a different part of the store.

Today, customers navigate the 76,000-square-foot store by handheld map; a cartoonish, manic puzzle of color-coded departments. The room with the “Tiffany-type” lamps leads to the hot beef sandwich counter, which in turn leads to the animatronic Chuck Wagon Quartet abutting one of many gift shops. Wedged between the lassoes and an art shop lies the Traveler’s Chapel, a replica Trappist abbey. The store’s 530-seat restaurant, where veterans and honeymooners are offered free coffee and doughnuts, houses millions of dollars' worth of original Western oil paintings—said to be the largest private collection of its type on Earth.

Wall Drug may widely be thought of as a tourist trap, but it’s hardly a “trap” at all. The store itself has no entrance fee, meterless street parking is ample and its signature product is free (though if you want a cup of coffee instead of ice water, it’ll run you five cents). Visitors aren’t required to open their wallets at any point to enjoy Wall Drug, which makes its more than $10 million in annual revenue especially impressive.

It seems the ongoing coronavirus pandemic hasn’t hampered Wall Drug; if anything, the store is busier than usual. Following a voluntary 10-week closure earlier in the year, which the store weathered with assistance from a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $350,000 and $1 million, business has resumed almost as usual. 

Merchandise has run out of stock, area hotels have hit near-full occupancy and cars with out-of-state license plates fill parking lots. Wall Drug’s roughly 200 employees, the majority of them seasonal, wear cloth face coverings; many customers do not. Despite South Dakota’s rising per-capita infection rates, a mask mandate has not been instituted either statewide by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem or in-store by the Husteads, who have historically been active donors to her various political campaigns.

Rick Hustead, Ted’s grandson and the current chairman of the store, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Since World War II, it’s been a tradition for locals and fanatics alike to calculate the distance back to Wall Drug while traveling internationally, and proudly display it wherever they are. Credit: Wall Drug

A cohesive campaign

There is no agency behind Wall Drug's ad strategy, which has gone essentially unchanged since its early days. For the past several years, Barr’s Sign Shop in the nearby town of Philip has created and maintained almost all of Wall Drug’s signage, embodying the spirit of the original marketing ploy: just hand-painted billboards and original, catchy phrases. There are no TV commercials, no banner ads and no digital out-of-home elements.

“Most of them are very simple, easy to read, easy to digest in just a few seconds. And that really is the secret to out-of-home advertising,” says Mendi Robinson, assistant VP of marketing and creative director at Lamar. A 22-year veteran with the out-of-home giant who began her career designing ads, Robinson knows what a successful billboard campaign takes. “The goal is to be legible and effective,” she says.

Ranging from the size of a movie poster to the length of a city bus, Wall Drug’s signs tend to follow those simple yet ironclad conventions: They’re colorful, directional and usually contain just a few words either promoting or describing the store in bold saloon-style typefaces. The billboards’ consistent design is further helped by their geographical concentration around South Dakota and primary creative lead by Barr’s.

A current marketing budget for Wall Drug is hard to pin down, but Target Marketing has suggested it's in the neighborhood of $300,000 annually, which covers its famous signs and bumper stickers that are given away for free (one per family, per visit). The impact and reach of that ad budget is further enhanced by the store’s largely cost-free, organic consumer-generated marketing elements.

A long-standing Wall Drug tradition is to hang signs around the world giving the distance to the store. It’s a quirk, the company says, that dates back to World War II when American G.I. Leonel Jensen, a friend of the Hustead family, put up a sign 4,278 miles away from Wall while recapturing France. Directional signs made by other soldiers continued to spring up around the European and Pacific theaters, and didn’t stop in peacetime.

On vacation in the U.K., the late Ted Hustead once placed a sign in the London Underground alerting commuters that Wall Drug was only 5,160 miles away, promising to send free tourism information about the store and South Dakota for those who inquired. (That one-off sign prompted up to 20 letters per day). Family friends followed suit, and store employees and superfans alike have since displayed similar signs in front of the Taj Mahal, on a Navy submarine, in Kenyan train stations, and even at an Antarctic research base.

Stateside, Wall Drug billboards hearkening back to the Old West run in quick succession along the region’s arterial highways, delivering millions of repeated impressions to road trippers. “Great out-of-home advertising connects emotionally and makes you feel something, and their signs made me feel nostalgia,” Robinson adds.

In recent years, the State of South Dakota has run domestic tourism campaigns with heavy out-of-home components in target DMAs including Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis—no surprise for James Hagen, who says that roadside advertising is a favorite of his due to its effectiveness, particularly in the vast American heartland.

“I think Wall Drug is a living testament to the power of those billboards,” Hagen says. Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes. GIF by Tam Nguyen