Ramblin' Man: Some say billboards are art, I say they're distractions

March 8, 2014
photo - A billboard on southbound Interstate 25 near Fountain. There's a similar sign on U.S. 24.
A billboard on southbound Interstate 25 near Fountain. There's a similar sign on U.S. 24. 

There's a billboard the size of a Buick on the way to Pueblo on Interstate 25.

It hangs in the sky, so much visual detritus, just outside Fountain.

Road porn, I say.

The billboard, and another one just like it on U.S. 24, challenge you to name 20 vegetables in the next 2 miles - while driving on the interstate at 75 mph.

That's a dangerous sign, I thought.

So I stopped texting on my phone and started listing veggies in my head.

It's no easy feat to name 20 vegetables, even when you aren't driving.

I bet even vegetarians can't do it.

Go ahead. Try it. Rattle off the names of 20 vegetables in two minutes, roughly the equivalent of traveling 2 miles at 60 mph.

As a rule, I am not a fan of billboards.

They get in the way of Colorado's soft cirrus clouds on gentle spring days, the azure sky and the rosy sunset on the commute home.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to do them, says Vanessa Moorman, general manager of Lamar Colorado Springs.

Seven words, she says.

And lots of white space. They should be easy to read for motorists whizzing by on the road.

"The typical rule is seven words and then all of the ideas about contrast between background and the text, then what is the client trying to accomplish," she says. "Part of it's advertising. Part of it's design."

Some of the more wordy ones, she said, come from agencies in the East. Billboard companies there have an advantage.

Traffic is horrible, and during the slowdowns, there is plenty of time to get the message across.

"They have a captive audience," she said. "People are stuck in traffic for an hour."

Some billboards are appealing, I'll admit.

Like the "Eat Mor Chikin" billboards for Chick-fil-A.

Not all of them have the touch.

Some seem to shout, others to cajole; others are nonsensical and vague.

Often, they have website addresses, as if drivers have enough time as they whiz by to jot this down.

Here's the rub.

More than 2 seconds of distraction while driving is dangerous, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This was my list when I strayed from the highway. "Corn, carrots, peas, lettuce, cabbage, squash, celery, radish, cucumbers, onions, romanesco, kohlrabi, kai-lan, Brussels sprouts."

It took a lot longer than 2 seconds.

It reminds me of when drive-in movies were part of America's landscape, monolithic screens with hulking, often racy images.

Drivers had one eye on the road, the other on gargantuan female parts flickering up against the great white screen in the sky like pornographic constellations.

They are mostly gone now.

But billboards and road signs will never fade.

Like the one on Las Vegas Street that warns drivers "Arms deactivated."

As I bumped my way down the road, I mulled this. Because it was vague.

Did it mean that people with guns would find their guns wouldn't work in this area of the road?

Had the government figured a way to do that, too?

Or the one as you roll off the northbound interstate onto Nevada Avenue - a drawing of a trailer and an arrow pointing down Nevada.

Does it mean cars pulling trailers must go this way? Or to find a trailer to pull, turn here?

I went that way, just to check. Nothing.

Moorman said she could help me with what makes a billboard good, but she couldn't help me with my apparent need to do whatever a billboard tells me to do.


Eggplant, did I say eggplant?

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