Dear God, Thank You for Billboards

Americans are good at buying stuff. Inseparably, Americans are good at selling stuff. Billboards, flyers, cold calls, even dirigibles and airplanes dragging messages over the coastline: if it persuades a consumer, we’ve got it. Poor, victimized consumers.

As a citizen of Los Angeles, I’m accustomed to being visually accosted by aggressive and often repulsive billboard advertisements. What else is one to look at: the concrete barriers and dilapidated warehouses walling in the freeway?

Countless times have I lamented, or at least whined, to friends and family about the autonomy violation named advertisement. Inherently deceptive, purposefully manipulative and aesthetically nauseating, I complain. They make people want what they can’t have, such as a computer-generated hot bod, and ‘need’ what they can’t afford, like a device with a name like ‘Fab Ab Belt’ that will supposedly spit out the hot bod during Saturday breakfast.

The ads make…? people want. Well, maybe that’s a hasty conclusion.

Since the beginning of July, I have been in various parts of England, traveling and studying. The English, at least at first, seem abysmal at selling things in comparison to the rabid LA market. I could count on one hand how many billboards I’ve seen, and those only in London, not the highways. No blimps to speak of.

No wonder, thought I, that Brits seem less materialistic than us Southern Californians and, in general, metro-Americans. No wonder women wear less makeup, cars are economical and TV shows have more ‘wit’ and less ‘glam’. By hook or crook, they’ve managed to escape our demons of consumer hooks and business crooks! Envy.

Of course, I exaggerate. England has advertisements too, but they are usually subtle. TV ads might have story lines that carry on for years, and the product usually takes a backseat to a joke or interesting interchange. Ads targeting personal appearance insecurities are remarkably infrequent, an alien concept to LA. Ads, in general, are remarkably infrequent, an even more alien concept to LA.

So then, we’ve been doomed and the English are saved. ‘The man’ creates advertisements, and ‘the man’ decided he liked the California climate.

Or maybe it doesn’t work that way. Maybe California decided it like ‘the man’.

Does that imply that SoCalians are naturally lacking some economic integrity to resist ‘billboard culture’ that the English possess?

It doesn’t seem so. We’re just more, well, capitalist, and I’m pretty sure that’s yet to be conclusively determined a vice, no matter what Jerry Brown might imply.

Advertisement research specialist Barbara Phillips, by going back to the seminal period of western advertisement, the Industrial Revolution, demonstrates the relationship between capitalism and ads:

Consumers did not know how goods were made, nor by whom, nor for what purpose. At the same time, individuals had less time to spend seeking information about the increasingly complex goods in the market. Consequently, consumers had a difficult time assigning social meanings to goods. They were unsure what the goods they bought “said” about them… The sweeping social changes described above left individuals clamoring for a source of social guidance, and advertisers were happy to step into the void.

Industrialization, while it certainly came to England, met the greatest success in America, and thrived in Los Angeles. The family and traditional institutions that people previously relied on for guidance fell away in the face of nomadic industrial workers and fading religious and community structures. The result? According to Phillips, “advertising began to take on a social guidance function… Consumers could turn to advertising for desperately-needed information that could help them reduce their anxiety in a complex and confusing world.”

In other words, when we don’t know what we want, we at least want someone to tell us what we want.

Living in England, in that regard, is enormously refreshing. I’m not being constantly told what I want, what I ‘should’ look like and what I ‘need’ to survive in the 21st century. Compared to LA, consumers are more creators of their desires, and less constructions of them.
Nevertheless, when I get back to the City of Angels come December, I’m going to look hard at those advertisements instead of mentally trying to gouge out my eyes. If every billboard is information about what the people around me want (for a few weeks, anyways), then every commercial can open a conversation examining the hidden premises of an marketing-driven society.

Every advertisement and every blinking billboard is a shared text, for better or worse. Each one begs the questions, “What are we missing?” and “What have we left behind?” Maybe it’s time we started talking about billboards and perhaps even attempt to answer their questions.

Published by

Robin Dembroff

Robin Dembroff is a student at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, pursuing degrees in Philosophy and English Literature. Her writing has been recognized by the Visalia Times Delta, Ayn Rand Institute, Michael L. Roston Creative Writing Contest, Torn Curtain – The Zine, Biola English Guild’s St. John the Apostle Paper Conference, and the Biola History/Gov’t/Social Science Department’s J.O. Henry Award.

  • Dillie-O

    Oddly, or not so oddly, enough, I can’t quite figure out what the billboard in this post means. Do I want to work out instead of drink beer? Is drinking that beer the equivalent of the “runners high” I get on the mountain? Is the beer a “healthy” beer I can can drink even though I’m an avid workout person. Maybe we need that guy to hurry up and put the last couple rolls on the billboard for us.

    I think you have a very interesting idea for a series of posts, and I hope you post more of them here.

  • David,

    Isn’t the American or more specifically, Californian proclivity for the billboard just a statement of how lost we are? Not only are people truly longing for meaning, but sadly they are at the same time willingly degrading themselves to live in a culture of simple, base, manipulative messages. Those who are buying up the messages are also the most unsatisfied, and yet the dots are not being connected.

  • Steve

    As the world continues to shake, more and more billboards will advertise invitations for coming back to the church and spiritual roots.