In Praise of Billboards

Should governments be able to regulate billboards on aesthetic grounds?

Mr. Person is former editor of Citizens Agenda. His work has appeared in National Review, Reason, and other magazines.

I recently took a car trip from central Texas to northern Virginia. Though my journey was of an entirely practical nature (two straight days of driving, with no time for sightseeing), it gave me a new appreciation for something I had not really given much thought to: billboards. Despite the scathing criticism heaped upon them for aesthetic reasons, billboards are actually possessed of a number of unsung virtues.

First of all, billboards are a valuable source of information, especially when you’re making a long trip through an unfamiliar area. If it’s getting near lunchtime, and I see a sign that says “McArches—30 miles,” then I have more information on how and when to plan my stops. Likewise, if I am starting to run low on gas, a sign for Texxon might tell me not only how far ahead the station is, but whether it has a mechanic on duty, the best way to get there, and so forth. Finally, if I’m starting to get sleepy, a billboard can tell me how far to the next motel, and what it might be charging for a room. As a consumer, every piece of information I have helps me make better choices.

Some states have a government substitute for billboards: signs with little metal plates bearing the establishment’s logo, distance-to information, and which exit to take. Like most state-owned substitutes, their usefulness falls far short of the real thing. For one thing, these little signs don’t tell you the prices of a room for the night, a gallon of unleaded, or a large order of fries. For another, they don’t give you all the other information a business might provide on their billboard: Homebaked Cookies! Air Conditioning! A Toledo Mudhens Collector’s Glass with Every Purchase!

Despite these many virtues, you almost never hear a kindly word for billboards. Critics charge they’re “sight pollution,” as though they emit cancer-causing agents that infect the body via the optic nerve. These same critics go on to charge that billboards clutter up the natural landscape, and, above all, are inferior to trees.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote:

I think that I shall never see

A billboard lovely as a tree.

Indeed, unless the billboards fall

I’ll never see a tree at all.

Fair enough. Such critics are, after all, entitled to their opinion. There are a lot of things I might personally label “sight pollution,” including those hideous modern art sculptures that seem to spring up like giant metal weeds in front of every government building. Indeed, between the two I much prefer billboards, especially since they weren’t constructed using my tax dollars. However, there is a big difference between saying something is ugly and saying that it should be regulated or outlawed.

As far as cluttering up the natural landscape goes, there are a lot of things that do that, including houses, cars, highways, and people, but you don’t see special-interest groups trying to legislate them out of existence. (OK, a few environmentalists are trying to outlaw all of the above, including people. However, since people make up the vast majority of the voting population, they haven’t made much progress on this front.) I must admit that I, too, think that the average tree is more attractive than the average billboard. Then again, a tree never told me that I could get three Supertacos for 99 cents either. Also, if my trip is any indication, trees are in no danger of disappearing anytime soon. On the way up they outnumbered billboards at least 10,000 to 1.

Aesthetic differences aside, it shouldn’t matter whether a billboard is beautiful or ugly: Both are protected by the right of private property. The idea that someone’s property rights should be taken away because a handful (or even a majority) of people deem a particular structure “ugly” is absurd.

There is a particularly insidious line of reasoning being marshaled by anti-billboard forces these days. “Because billboards are profitable only because they are placed along major public thoroughfares,” goes this argument, “the right of private property does not apply, and thus it is well within a government’s right to regulate them out of existence.” The implications of such reasoning are truly frightening. This same logic applies to every single business that operates along any public road, and since the overwhelming majority of roads in the United States are government controlled, the scale of government intervention permissible under such a doctrine is staggering.

Indeed, as long as we’re going to have the government enforce aesthetic dictates, it is only a small step from regulating the billboards along a road to regulating the cars on it. In the future, we can expect to see the Good Taste Police handing out tickets to those wretched miscreants whose cars need body work or a new paint job. The scourge of automotive sight pollution must be driven off our streets, which means no more purple Cadillacs, custom low-riders, jacked-up pickup trucks, or any other vehicle that fails to conform with the new Government Aesthetics Standards.

In addition to property rights, billboards are also protected by another of our basic freedoms: the right to free speech. In Austin, Texas, there used to be a mural billboard that proclaimed: FREE NELSON MANDELA! While this is an overtly political message, commercial messages on billboards are also expressions of that same right to free speech. The First Amendment makes no distinction between commercial and non-commercial speech, and the message “Two McBurgers—$1.99” should be no less constitutionally protected than “Free Nelson Mandela.”

Finally, billboards can be a source of humor. While driving in Tennessee, I saw a billboard for one particular establishment proudly proclaim: FOOD * GAS * ELVIS COLLECTIBLES. Now there’s one thing no government sign is ever going to tell me!

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