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The Medium Is the Mess

Prop A has billboard companies on the defensive and scrambling to put up more signs


The message is unblushing -- "JIM TALENT: TOO EXTREME FOR MISSOURI" -- and gets its point across quicker than a blink of neon. That's all the time it has. That's all the time it needs.

Local 1001 of the Service Employees International Union, whose political-action committee strongly opposes the Republican candidate in the Missouri governor's race, spent $6,000 to plaster those words across a billboard alongside the westbound lanes of I-44 for the next six weeks. Flashing the same message on just one 30-second local-television spot during prime-time could cost three times that much, and because the union's 3,200 St. Louis-area members are mainly low-wage workers who can't exert much political influence any other way, the billboard is seen as a great investment.

Because studies indicate that 74 percent of billboards in a rider's field of vision are seen and 48 percent of those boards are actually read, the union will make its point to a good number of the 125,000 drivers who pass by on I-44 every single day for the next six weeks.

"Given the number of people who will see it, yeah, I think it was a great buy," says Local 1001 spokesman Grant Williams.

It is this promise of mass attention that spawns industries such as Perception Research Services in New Jersey, which currently works on billboard strategies for St. Louis-based Ralston Purina and Energizer. According to Elliot Young, founder and chairman of PRS, there's an entire science behind billboard design and placement, and big companies are willing to pay for it.

PRS basically conducts two kinds of research -- how many consumers actually read billboards and how a particular billboard resonates with the people who drive by it. To test, for instance, how much attention people pay to billboards in general, PRS places a tiny camera on the bridge of a pair of glasses and then records what the hundreds of wearers see -- literally.

"In other words," Young says, "It's all calibrated to see exactly what you see. As you look left and right, I can see if a board is in your field of view, or if you drive by and there's no board, or if you drive by and there was a board but you never saw it."

But getting drivers to read a board among all the "clutter," Young says, is the tricky part. In one study his company conducted for Lender's Bagels, a proposed billboard featured a lone bagel floating on one-half of the sign and a huge cow covered with bagels on the other. The slogan: "Lender's now in the dairy case." The company found that because so many people focused on the cow, they couldn't recall the name of the company that had placed the ad. PRS did find, however, that the cow effectively communicated the message that bagels could be found in the dairy section.

The message, in other words, is everything.

No one involved in Missouri's upcoming vote on billboards would dispute the fact that outdoor advertising is one of the quickest ways onto a soapbox. It's also one of the cheapest -- which, for purposes of Proposition A, slated to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot, might be interpreted in several different ways. Whereas former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth calls Missouri's abundance of billboards "an embarrassment" and St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon calls them "graffiti tags on the landscape," members of the Advertising Association of America (OAAA) describe Missouri's 13,500 high-density skybound broadcasts for Meramec Caverns, the Black Madonna Shrine, the Elvis Presley Museum and Cheap Smokes as a "veritable theater of the streets" that businesses need.

Thus the argument is defined -- aesthetics vs. commerce. If approved by voters, Proposition A would basically do the following: keep new billboards from going up, keep billboard owners from cutting down trees and vegetation on public rights-of-way that might obscure the signs and keep outdoor advertising companies from even maintaining billboards that are already out there. In short, the billboard industry in Missouri would have to survive on what exists.

Not that it doesn't have plenty stocked up. According to members of Save Our Scenery 2000 -- the group responsible for getting Prop A on the ballot -- Missouri has three times as many billboards per mile than eight neighboring states. And one of the unintended consequences of the group's successful petition drive, says campaign director Karl Kruse, is that more and more billboards are going up in anticipation of Prop A's passage.

"Obviously, if the billboard industry loses, it wants as many up as possible," Kruse says, adding that 20 percent of all billboards in Missouri are vacant. "So right now what's going on is, they're putting up a lot of billboards. It's going on all over the state, but there's a horrendous rash of billboard construction going on between St. Charles and Hermann on I-70."

The Missouri Department of Transportation, which licenses billboards, could not provide us with the number of new billboards erected as of press time, but one spokesman from DDI Media says that his billboard company is indeed putting up more signs in preparation for Prop A's passage.

Other companies, however, deny such goings-on. One of the biggest local companies to zero in on the I-70 corridor is Porlier Outdoor Advertising. In the past 12 years, Porlier has erected 125 two-sided signs in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, and although a good number of those have gone up recently, it's not because of Prop A, the company says. "We are building our business," says owner Brent Porlier, of St. Charles County. "The signs aren't going up any faster than they normally do."

Billboards are big business in Missouri. They're big business everywhere. According to OAAA, Americans will probably spend more than $5 billion on outdoor advertising by the end of this year, a 10 percent increase over 1999. About 70 percent of all billboards in Missouri are owned by out-of-state companies like Lamar Outdoor Advertising, which has 125,000 billboards nationwide and which reported net annual revenues in June of $173 million.

On average, most billboards are taken out to promote local services and amusements -- about 16 percent -- followed by hotels and resorts, retail and media and advertising. In Missouri, according to the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association (MOAA), almost 85 percent of the billboards are bought by small local businesses.

"I've been working for DDI Media for 10 years," says Anthony Mariani, a real-estate manager for the St. Louis billboard company, "and we have increased our sales every single year. There are new markets and new users of outdoor advertising all the time, especially now with all of the dotcom companies. They're very big users."

One effective billboard seen a lot these days is the one stating "VOTE NO ON PROPOSITION A!" The sign was paid for by Missourians Against Tax Waste, a coalition obviously opposed to the measure, which includes groups ranging from the National Federation of Independent Businesses to the National Barrel Horse Association to the Joplin Truckomat. Several Red Lobster franchises are in there, too, as are casinos, family-owned restaurants, auto dealerships, hotel chains, farm-supply stores, labor unions and Your Radio Pastor, T. Richard Baber, billboard users all.

Although Save Our Scenery 2000 has not taken out any billboards to advertise its campaign, it also includes an unlikely coalition of groups that includes Hallmark Cards Inc., the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Silver Dollar City, the Missouri Public Health Association, the Missouri Municipal League, the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce, the Conservation Federation of Missouri, Lodge of the Four Seasons Inc. and the Garden Club of Ladue.

The main gripe of Missourians Against Tax Waste is that the statutory changes put forth by Prop A would allow the state to take down as many as 4,000 signs at a cost of $600 million to taxpayers. Mariani -- who, in addition to working for DDI Media, is vice president of MOAA -- says that the language requires existing billboards to conform to certain size, lighting and spacing requirements; ones that don't can be condemned by MoDOT. "And we're not sure if that's what Missouri taxpayers want," Mariani says.

Mariani says his group's allegation is based on its interpretations of Prop A's statutory provisions, but MoDOT and the state auditor's office both claim the language doesn't require any signs be taken down at all.

"It's a complete and total fabrication," Kruse says. "They have simply made this up to scare voters and continue to use it even though the director of MoDOT and the state auditor say there's no requirement that billboards be removed."

Rather, Kruse says, Prop A would eliminate billboards through time. If a tornado ripped through St. Charles and tore down billboards in its path, they couldn't be replaced. If a wooden sign was attacked by termites and fell down, it couldn't be re-erected. If trees on a public right-of-way grew up and obscured a low billboard, they couldn't be cut down.

"That's the best we can do," Kruse says.

Related Links
Save Our Scenery 2000
Missourians Against Tax Waste

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