Billboards: The Good, The Bad, and the just plain Ugly

Billboards: The Good, The Bad, and the just plain Ugly
Small type, phone numbers and other bad ideas

You are driving down the highway at slightly over the speed limit and see a billboard ahead. Your eyes adjust to the right side of the road and quickly look at the ad. Whoosh. You’ve blown past it. Yes, there was a nice picture of a happy couple, but it’s not clear if it’s an ad for Cialis, a bank or a new resort.

Why does this happen? Very poorly designed billboards. You know the ones I’m talking about, small illegible words, no call to action, and/or an extremely tacky design.

It takes a good deal of talent to design and implement display outdoor advertising. We know that a well put-together ad will get the attention of a captive audience, and they work well for banks, insurance, road-side eateries and car dealers. So, what makes a good billboard?

Jacob Cass, a freelance graphic artist, posts some tips on his website, His solid advice for the drive-by message includes ensuring immediate product identification, short copy, large images, simple backgrounds, innovation, creativity and humor. I will add the most important criterion: legibility at 70 miles per hour.

When we began an outdoor campaign for a Triple A baseball team in the Midwest, we were challenged by the client to create dramatic and bold advertising. One of the reasons we took over the account from another agency was its bad outdoor designs.

At the same time, one of our former creative directors re-joined our staff. He asked me what the department could do better. I simply said: outdoor.

Well, it was a great opportunity to build solid creative work. And he did. Our campaign, Baseball Up Close, was a home run. The boards had a simple design, strong message (the wonderful ballpark was so well-designed that fans felt they were right on top of the action), and a simple message of affordability and family fun. Get it? Baseball Up Close.


When you think of memorable outdoor boards (if you really think about these things), you think of funny, direct, clear, concise and simple. That sort of holds true for just about everything, doesn’t it? A pet peeve of mine: Can you actually remember the phone number? Probably not. Unless it’s something like 1-800-Get Help. We’ve all seen the bad ads where you cannot read the name of the company or association. We’ve all seen the bad ads where you cannot read the name of the company or association. And the ones with the weather-worn food images that actually make you veer away from the exit ramp. And the ones with risqué shots that make you want to wash your eyeballs.

Let me also point out that certain images get attention (sometimes negative) with risqué photos (we’ve all seen the jeans ad with a bulbous butt and slogan, “as comfortable as your baby blanket.” Not really, I’m making that up. But, you get the point. I do recall Brooke Shields with her iconic, nothing comes between me and my jeans campaign. Wonder why?

There’s a very good reason to advertise outdoors, and you see hundreds of fine examples every day. While Lady Bird Johnson had a good idea when she urged that our roadways be advertising-free, it simply didn’t work out. Keep America Beautiful was an excellent campaign. With unforgettable billboards.


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