Billboards are still signs of our times

Billboards are still signs of our times

Like a lot of other people, we took a road trip — and dealt with lots of snow — over spring break.

It wasn’t a long vacation, just an extended weekend in Kansas City to take in some NCAA tournament games, visit with family and eat lots of food.

The drive was fairly uneventful. That feeling of sameness you get driving along the interstates makes it hard to distinguish one state from the Blog Photonext, especially in the heartland.

Until you read the billboards.

That’s when you know you’re not in central Illinois anymore.

Granted, Illinois highways sport their share of billboards, especially in metro areas. They advertise the usual hotels and restaurants, cellphone plans, personal-injury lawyers, lottery games, even the infamous “” series.

But Missouri’s have a different flavor.

Under the theory that you can tell a lot about a state by its billboards, I have concluded that Missourians value church, guns, porn shops and taxidermy, not necessarily in that order.

And apparently there’s some sort of billboard-based recruiting war going on among Missouri’s universities. (It is, after all, the pre-Internet form of tweeting, as one Urbana billboard attests.)

Driving along Interstate 70, in both directions, you see towering billboards with four- or five-part ad campaigns for the University of Missouri (“M”-“I”-“Z”-“Z”-“O”-“U”), Missouri State University and the University of Central Missouri (I admit I did not know there was one).

A few other billboard highlights from our trip:

— “Got a bra problem?” screams the billboard for “Ann’s Bra Shop” in giant type. I picture this being asked by a wizened older woman (by which I mean older than me) with a cigar hanging out of her mouth, in a voice like Roz’s from “Monsters Inc.” Oddly, the reverse side of one of Ann’s many billboards carries an anti-abortion message asking what you will tell God at the pearly gates when he asks how you protected the unborn. Too much to think about while navigating icy roads.

— Which brings us to our next category, church billboards. This is the Bible Belt, after all, evidenced by the many signs advertising Pentecostal churches — or making political statements. One sign, quoting a Scripture passages, emphasizes “1 man + 1 woman = marriage,” for a lifetime. A similar ad last fall elicited a counter-billboard from the Freedom From Religion Foundation: “Ban Marriage Between Church and State.”

— There appear to be just as many billboards for “Gentlemen’s Clubs,” as one sign so nicely puts it. My favorite is “Passion’s Couple’s Adult Store,” which I would like to visit just to ask their theory of the apostrophe. Luckily, our children were too preoccupied with the Kindle to notice.

— Travelers in Missouri also have lots of choices for guns and ammo. For convenient one-stop shopping, Crane’s Country Store’s billboard advertises “Garments, Guns and Gas.” I presume they have food, too.

— Here’s the best business name we came across all weekend: “Heads up Taxidermy.” Gets right to the point. “That sums up Missouri right there,” my husband commented (sorry, Show Me State-ers).

— Last but not least is my personal favorite, advertising the “Princess Ballerina Mobile Home Country Club.” I’m not even sure where to start.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with billboards (referred to by the industry as “outdoor advertising”). I hate how they clutter the Blog Photolandscape, but they provide fodder for that road-trip classic, the alphabet sign game, a godsend for stressed-out parents.

I still prefer the old signs painted on barn rooftops (think “MERAMEC CAVERNS”) or homemade versions like the hand-lettered sign we saw last week from “” The website sells old prints and maps via eBay.

Some states ban billboards altogether, including Vermont and Hawaii, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Well, sure, there’s plenty to see in those states without signs; you can play the natural landmark alphabet game instead.

The federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965 limited billboards to commercial and industrial zones created by states or municipalities, and required states to set standards. Almost half the states also enacted billboard regulations under an earlier federal incentive program. Illinois is among them; Missouri is not.

But, lest we gloat, remember that Chicago is its own animal, evidenced by a racy new billboard at Clark and Ontario streets. Situated not far from the family-friendly Rainforest Cafe, it advertises a Toronto-based website called and features a former porn star with the line, “The best job is ...” well, a certain kind of “job.” The website doubled its subscriber base the first day, according to WGN-TV.

I’m thinking we may see that one on our next trip west.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the newspaper's Family section. Leave a comment below, or contact Julie at (217) 351-5226,, or follow her at



Top: Showcasing the latest billboard technology, a 2010 model in North Carolina emitted the smell of black pepper and charcoal to promote a new line of beef available at the Bloom grocery chain, which includes Food Lion  A high-powered fan at the bottom of the billboard spread the aroma by blowing air over cartridges loaded with fragrance oil. AP photo

Bottom: Halen Shinneman, Champaign, an employee of Adams Outdoor Advertising, tries to control a blowing billboard after it came loose in the wind. The photo was taken Feb. 29. Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette


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