20 January 2012

Billboard Opposition

Buyways by Catherine Gudis, 2004, Excerpts

Opposition to outdoor advertising began in the late-nineteenth-century urban arena and then stretched into the countryside along with cars, highways, and national advertising campaigns. By the 1920s and 1930s, resistance to outdoor advertising became a national battle over aesthetic rights to the roadside environment.

If the roadside vista was public space and thereby open to democratic access, then billboards comprised both a physical and a conceptual blight. They blocked the view from the road, that was obvious enough, but they also blocked the notion that the American landscape was held commonly, without property borders and free to all. Advertising interrupted the ideal conception of the imperial eye that this landscape was somehow owned by all, and reminded motorists that not they, the people, but rather the market was in possession of even the most remote American vista.

Roadside reformer’s, drawn from the ranks of women’s clubs, garden clubs, and other civic associations, set out to rid the public highways of the signs of commerce. Outdoor advertisers comprised their foe, men who asserted their private commercial right to broadcast across public space. The billboard war thus emerged as a struggle as much over the public roles of women and men as it was over the shape and appearance of the road and the roadside. A woman emerged from this club scene of activism who would come to dominate the arena of roadside reform for forty years until her death in 1952. A graduate of Vassar College, Elizabeth Boyd Lawton dedicated her life to obliterating “billboard blight.”

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