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When lady bird Johnson embarked on her laudable "Beautify America" campaign more than 30 years ago, billboards received a black eye that still smarts. Ask anyone who still remembers and chances are they'll recall her No. 1 target-rightly or wrongly-was "billboards."

Outdoor advertising, the industry-correct term for "billboards," is the aerosol spray can of the marketing world. Billboards are routinely dismissed as ugly, environmentally unfriendly and socially unredeemable.

The debate over billboards, new-ly reignited in connection with restrictions on tobacco advertising, has been bogged down by dogmatic and stunted thinking for far too long. The perceptions about outdoor advertising haven't changed since 1964-even though reality has.


Billboards are no more "ugly" than any other form of advertising. Anyone who attended the recent Obie awards in New York saw that some of the most beautiful advertising today finds its home in the great outdoors.

The trouble is the outdoor ads most Americans see don't look so great. Neither does most TV, newspaper or magazine advertising. The issue of ugly ads shouldn't be left at the doorstep of the outdoor medium; it's a plague that diminishes the effectiveness of advertising in general. It's up to agencies and their clients to fix this.

Why not begin to "beautify advertising" with the biggest possible canvas! Actually, the beautification process need not be limited merely to making the ads themselves look better.

Rance Crain recently wrote a commentary in Advertising Age about the efforts in New York to wrap water tanks with ad messages (AA, April 28). Done right, this could add a new element of interest and intrigue to the city's skyline.

Why stop with water tanks? Abandoned smokestacks, which many consider a blot on the landscape, could be dressed up imaginatively as entertaining, beautiful advertising.


Here's another environmentally-innovative idea. In Fairfax, Va., there's a move afoot to control the proliferation of cellular towers. The good news is that, of the approximately 400,000 billboards nationwide today, about one-third could be used as wireless carriers. For example, a billboard company, Whiteco, geo-coded its network, enabling some 13,000 billboards in 34 states to double as cellular antennas.

If billboards can become homes to new technologies, what are the other possibilities? Perhaps some billboard locations could be made to work as habitats for endangered species. Let's use some imagination here.

Billboards have long played a role in supporting worthy causes. One of the most creative outdoor campaigns at the Obies-and a best of show winner-was a good, old-fashioned transit shelter campaign by J. Walter Thompson USA for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. On a less-conventional level, there have been several recent news reports about school buses carrying billboards as a means of funding bus monitors that ensure the safety of schoolchildren.


This could be applied to other causes, such as the financial straits of public libraries. Perhaps fewer libraries would be closing their doors or reducing their services if they wrapped their buildings in tastefully done outdoor ads.

It's not that there should be more outdoor advertising, but better, more imaginative outdoor campaigns that enhance the environment, support worthy causes and "beautify America" in more ways than one. If the advertising community turns a "beautiful" eye to outdoor ads, my bet is that so will the American people.

Mr. Wilkins is president, Wilkins Outdoor Network, Atlanta.

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