December 10, 2016

1965. The Nation's Outdoor Advertising Epidemic

Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Campaign
"President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a signing pen to Lady Bird Johnson as others look on" at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act at the White House, October 22, 1965 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

October 5, 1965

When the late Henry Ford put America on wheels, he made every motorist a wagon master. Ever since this advent of rapid and cheap transportation, the restless American population has been following the trails blazed by their forefathers across prairies and rivers, through valleys and deserts, over hills and mountains of such startling beauty and magnificence that the art and legend of this nation has always been rooted in the natural wonder of the continent.

The original roads and highways followed the trails left by the deer and other game who had found the easiest passage over a range of mountains or from valley to valley, or they followed the paths cut by the migratory Indians across the plains or between the water holes in the sands. Or, in the old days, if a man wanted to build his own roadway up a rise, he took his best milk cow to the bottom of the hill and then marked her zigzag path to the top. A cow is not the smartest animal on earth except that she will always find the easiest grade to climb any slope in front of her. And that's the way that America's network of road communications developed a kind of transportation Topsy wandered aimlessly across the land, but served the horse-and-buggy era very well.

However, as more and more people graduated from the Model T, they demanded more direct and well-paved roads. And as more millions took to motoring, some far-seeing traveling salesman figured out that travelers usually have money to spend, that they have a lot of time to look around when riding along, and that the sides of the thousands of barns along the virtually every other mile of American landscape made perfect backgrounds for the advertising of such things as Mail Punch chewing tobacco, Clabber Girl baking powder, and most predominately of all, Bull Durham roll-your-own smoking tobacco.

This, we believe, was the beginning of outdoor advertising. Since then it has become a multi-million dollar industry which has been ambushing the American motorist with ever more garish and more encroaching sales pitches until, in some areas, driving from one city to another makes one feel as if you'd detoured into some gigantic and frantic neon-lit pinball board—with your automobile the careening steel ball buffeted through a nightmare of light and sound.

Not until after World War II did the nation get down to serious work on the parkways and superhighways so vitally needed. Today, about half of the 41,000 mile National System of Interstate and Defense highways have been completed, and the government finds itself confronted with a problem of aesthetics.

The federal and state engineers might be building some of the most modern and best superhighways in the world, but before the national road network would be completed in 1972, there was a danger it would turn the United States into a gargantuan carnival grounds—with each highway a kind of high speed circus midway—or a blur of continuous billboards and signs with the hard sell dominating and obscuring everything.

As new highways opened up the scenic back country, it was revealed that for years the nation had been concealing its wrecked and worn out automobiles in unsightly junkyards in obscure spots of the country—something like a child hiding his broken toys. In fact, a survey made last spring showed that there were some 18,000 of these growing scrapheaps in view of federal aid primary roads across the country.

Congress recognized this eyesore problem back in 1958 when it approved a semi-voluntary billboard control policy, leaving enforcement up to the states. Only twenty states signed up with the federal government on the billboard agreement; only seven of them enforced the policy.

Which brings us up to date. This year the Senate passed an amended version of the Johnson administration billboard law with some teeth in it. It calls for strict control of outdoor advertising and junkyards along the 41,000 miles of interstate highways and about 225,000 miles of federally supported primary roadways.

The bill has been sent to the House of Representatives, which is scheduled to vote on it the day after tomorrow, Thursday, October 7.

What will make this House vote special is that it will test the political persuasiveness of Lady Bird Johnson. Mrs. Johnson has been stumping the country to promote her husband's National Beautification Program, and the war against billboards and auto graveyards has been a priority project.

But in the past week the House has been kicking at its legislative traces, and Congressmen say they're just plain tired of passing bills and appropriating money, no matter how worthy the projects.

However, Washington politicians have learned never to underestimate the powers of a woman—particularly if she's the vivacious wife of the President. In fact, some say that Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy will go down in history as the First Lady who redecorated the White House, and before it's over, Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson may make the history books as the First Lady who redid the whole American landscape.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.