icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Advertising and good sense don’t necessarily go together

We’ve been up to Georgia for a family wedding, and although we have a lifelong policy of preferring old roads to interstates, this time my schedule was such that we took I-75 going and returning. Because it’s nearly summer solstice, more of the trip was in daylight than usual. Some observations:

Someone at the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) is paying attention to the future. I can hardly believe that this usually creaking bureaucracy thought of an innovation before I did, but it’s true. For the first time anywhere in the world, I saw a rest area with reserved parking spaces for “alternative fuel vehicles.” DOT clearly is trying to persuade people to buy that sort of car, as these spaces were even more convenient than those for the handicapped. It’s a subtle message, but nonetheless a clear one. I approve -- but wonder if anyone told the governor? He’d probably fire this thoughtful bureaucrat tomorrow, so let’s count on him never getting down out of his private plane to see what’s happening on interstates.

DOT’s landscaping also is improving. It’s particularly striking when you cross the state line, and suddenly Georgia’s plethora of ugly billboards gives way to thousands of newly planted trees. The magnolias that are coming into bloom now are especially striking. We still don’t match the Carolinas and Virginia for beds of perennials such as daylilies and cannas, but we are making progress. We’re definitely beating out I-75 in Georgia.

I think of former Representative Mary Figg, Democrat from Lutz, every time I hit a patch of interstate that features flora over advertising. She was in the legislature when I-75 south of Tampa was under construction and successfully sponsored a bill that limited billboards. Now North Florida is emulating that, and the area from Pasco to Alachua counties is the only one that remains seriously blighted by outdoor advertising. Florida’s image with visitors is greatly improved as a result of Mary’s efforts, and it is sadly ironic that she lost her re-election to a male Republican in the billboard business.

She didn’t run negative campaigns, so this was not an issue in the election – but had it been, she might have retained her seat. The district she represented was based in the USF community, and most voters would have agreed with her on this issue (and others) had they known more about her opponent. She lost largely because Republican campaign managers in Tallahassee sent out one-size-fits-all negative mailers that portrayed her and other Democrats as anti-family. The reality was that Mary had been married to a USF professor for decades and was the mother of adult children, while the Republican man was young and unmarried. This election was just slightly past the era when Ronald Reagan, a divorced Hollywood actor who was alienated from his children, defeated Baptist Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter on a platform of family values. Pay attention, people! And yes, it is fair to ask if a politician’s personal life matches his public proclamations.

* * *

But back to billboards. In the area where they still flourish, I saw an unfortunate number that apparently were paid for by Florida cities. Cocoa and Cocoa Beach were by far the worst offenders, with as many as a dozen signs. Most featured a scantily clad girl on the beach, but at least one recommended visiting “Historic Downtown Cocoa.” This might be a good thing, but even a history buff like me doesn’t need to see it from hundreds of miles away.

And if that was a geographical offense, Titusville offered a chronological offense. That town’s obviously permanent billboard alerted us to its one-week Bird Watching Festival in January. Surely there are better ways to attract the attention of bird watchers – and that is the major reason why I think the billboard industry is dying. People now do their travel research on the internet, usually months before they actually get on the road. If they aim to celebrate birds in Titusville (near NASA rockets? this appeals to birds?), they know that destination before they might happen to see a billboard near Alachua. Any industry this untargeted in today’s zoom-in communication is bound to die.

Indeed, at one point during the north-of-Tampa blight, I counted nine empty billboards in about a mile. You’d think their owners would have enough sense to take them down (or offer free space for non-profit messages) rather than have this very visible testimony to their failure, but advertising and good sense don’t necessarily go together. What’s killing the industry, though, isn’t environmentalism or traffic safety or any of the longtime arguments against billboards. It’s the GPS.

As a traveler who prefers ground to air when possible, I used to make an argument for billboards that featured motels, restaurants, and other services that tourists need. I wanted only to ban billboards unrelated to travel: those that featured attorneys, banks, insurance, and – good grief, even funeral homes. Morgan & Morgan “for the people” lawyers aside, using this method to deliver a message seemed to me to appeal to exactly the potential customer or client that a solid business would not want. They were (and are) a traffic hazard, especially on Florida’s busy highways. I was willing, however, to let the billboards stand that advertised things drivers really need.

Somewhere in the middle is whether or not drivers need the recent trend of billboards that advertise hospitals. (But then, I’m ambivalent about advertising medical services at all.) I suppose that one in every million cars driving I-75 may contain a passenger who needs medical attention, and they might find a billboard helpful -- but better they should just pull off the road and call 911. And certainly they don’t need the message that some Gainesville area hospital featured: “The only ER on 39th Avenue.” I’ve driven around Gainesville a fair amount and don’t remember 39th Avenue as especially important, let alone a reason to choose that street as the number one priority for hospitalization. I’ll nominate that advertiser as the worst of any on the road. If it is an example of University of Florida marketing graduates, we really should close the department.

A GPS will tell us where hospitals are, too, and it can tell us much, much more than even hundreds of billboards about motels, restaurants, and other things that matter to interstate drivers. Billboards will die because of that. So, if anyone happens to be paying attention, here’s another idea for DOT: Let’s create frequent pull-off areas where people can check their GPS (or cell phone or whatever gadget) to determine where they want to exit for a good meal or a night’s sleep -- or museum, park, and other attractions (even hospitals). Then we could take down the interstate’s official signs for lodging, food, and gas, which would create a more democratic playing field for the non-chain facilities that can’t afford the current official placement.

Official placement on the interstate signs is almost always uninformative – in comparison to this trip, for example, when the GPS sent us to a restaurant in downtown Valdosta that we never would have known of otherwise. It was in a historic building across the street from the historic courthouse, yet – like most such venues these days – featured an absolutely modern, very creative menu. We chose a meal of six appetizers: She-Crab soup with sherry; fried rutabaga sticks, a Fritto Misto of buttermilk-fried calamari, okra, pickles, and green tomatoes; a bruschetta with smoked duck, blueberry stilton cheese, and local honey; as well as braised bacon with gouda grits and a cane syrup drizzle. This, mind you, was Valdosta. In southern Georgia. If you want to pull off I-75 just a very few miles, its name is 306 North. Hubby asked the proprietor if she had noticed an increase in out-of-town patrons during the last decade, and she responded that about a third of customers now come because of their GPS.

So, a concluding word on billboards. I’ve long noted that one can tell much about the voters of an area’s residents via its billboards – but it’s harder to tell which of competing ideologies will win any given election. As we all know, I-75 well north of Tampa and far from any urban area long has featured signs for Café Risque and other “gentlemen’s clubs.” It also is the most likely place for anti-abortion signs and warnings about hell. I think these contradictory views are a last vestige of an Old South that proclaimed a philosophy fundamentally based on hypocrisy. But that message, too, is dying, as is this particular medium of delivery.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author