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The Evolution of Billboard Marketing

Consider the humble billboard. While television and radio advertisements contain cleverly worded pitches, attention-grabbing sound effects, and flashy graphics, outdoor market schema remain rooted to the ground waiting for passers-by to take notice. In fact, since coming into being in the 1830s, the format of large-scale outdoor advertising has changed very little in comparison to other advertising channels. Marketers affix flexible vinyl wraps to a building or scaffolding in a high-traffic area and hope that consumers look up to see it.

In the past 20 years a combination of innovative design and technological advancement has begun to change the way outdoor advertising reaches the public. With the proliferation of video screens and smart phones, demand for the attention of consumers is greater than ever before. In response, marketers have invested in digital displays and interactive advertising components continue to push outdoor advertising in unanticipated ways.

Outdoor Marketing Then and Now

Today outdoor advertising can be found all over American cities: on garbage cans, bus shelters, taxi cabs, and skyscrapers, not to mention along interstates. The use of large outdoor advertisements, 50 square feet or greater, began in New York in 1835 with posters advertising a circus. By 1900, the standard billboard structure, backed by steel scaffolding, had emerged. It took the development of an interstate highway system and automobile commuting for marketers to truly seize the opportunity of nationwide outdoor advertising.

  • History of Outdoor Advertising details the beginnings of modern outdoor marketing from large-scale posters in the 1830s to the present.
  • Roadside America, Then and Now is a digital collection from Duke University documenting the history of outdoor advertising along America’s highways.
  • This How Products Are Made tutorial describes the process of manufacturing the images on billboards, which typically use a screen-printing process on vinyl backing.

Degrees of Marketing Regulation

The advertising industry continues to regulate its outdoor advertising, especially the major trade organizations like OAAA, AAAA and AAF. However, since the development of the interstate highway system after WWII, the federal government passed several laws restricting outdoor advertising, along with many local statutes dictating the placement of signs.

Outdoor Advertising Today

Longer commute times and an increase in miles driven present an opportunity for outdoor marketers. While Americans spend 27% of their time out of the home, spending on outdoor advertisements comprises a mere 4.4% of advertising spending, according to data from Universal McCann and the Nielson Media Research Survey. The National Household Travel Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau in 2009, further establishes that US consumers are spending more and more time on the road.


In the Internet age, how can one of the oldest advertising methods stay current?

Digital Advertising

Since 1996, the Federal Highway Administration has allowed digital billboard advertising as long as state and local governments permit their installation. Recently, LED-based screens have replaced outmoded digital displays, allowing the billboards to cycle through many advertisements over the course of the day. Ads flash for only a few seconds, so many products can be featured from the same site.

Mobile Advertising

Marketers are developing new tools to encourage consumer interaction with their advertisements. These include features such as Quick Response (QR) codes and other two-dimensional bar codes that can be read by a smart phone. These codes can be embedded inside print and billboard advertising to provide an interactive experience for consumers. It’s one more way that advertisers are continuing to innovate in the field of outdoor marketing.

  • Mobile Marketer discusses how the retail giant Target draws in customers by embedding QR codes inside its advertisements.
  • Business Insider writes that advertisers are already retiring the QR code, with Google leading the way. These outmoded bar codes will be replaced by the faster Near-Field Communication (NFC) code.
  • Advertising vehicles, which include public transportation vehicles bearing banner advertisements and private cars with vinyl ads plastered on the side, are another avenue for marketers to get the attention of consumers outside of their homes.

*images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons