Some people find billboards disruptive and unattractive. They cover up scenery and distract drivers. But billboards are one of the oldest forms of advertising and are still a popular way for companies to get their message across.
Good Question! listener Norma Bronder estimates that she passes at least 30 billboards on her drive from Squirrel Hill to Downtown. She said the signs are eyesores.
“[I] wouldn’t mind if they were all downtown or one business are, but when they’re on the foot of a hill and they’re everywhere,” Bronder said. “We have such beautiful hills and they’re covered.”
Billboards can be as long as a school bus and tall as a house. Bronder heard that Pittsburgh had more billboards than any other city in the country. But Mike Dawida, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Scenic Pittsburgh, said that’s not the case.
“We were close at one point,” Dawida said.
Scenic Pittsburgh was formed in the 1990s to help the city and municipalities around the region craft regulations preventing excessive billboard posting and monitor other activities that could block landscapes.
“Our job is to go to those communities and develop a zoning code that will protect the people, as well as the interests of the community,” Dawida said.
The local and national chapters formed after Lady Bird Johnson helped create the 1965 Beautification Act. The law regulated outdoor advertising and put restrictions on where eyesores like junkyards could be located. Prior to its approval, a lot of the country didn’t prioritize its natural landscapes and vistas. In Pittsburgh, where steel dominated most aspects of life, Dawida said there was little thought given to the impact of billboards.
“It never occurred to me or anyone else that billboards would be much of an issue,” Dawida said. “Now, the companies that come to Pittsburgh, they want it to be a nice place.”
The city of Pittsburgh was the first in Allegheny County to update its municipal code. Its extensive chapter on signs includes restrictions on luminance, explicit material and location. Signs can’t be within 350 feet of tunnels, parks, and most bridges. They also can’t be painted on fences, rocks, or trees.
Five years ago, the city of Pittsburgh tried to pass an excise tax on billboard companies. The charge of 10 percent per sign was quickly challenged by New Orleans-based company Lamar Advertising and is still in litigation. According to Pittsburgh's 2017 Operating Budget, the tax would bring in an estimated $1.2 to $2 million annually. Because of the lawsuit, no revenue has been collected.
As Dawida travels around the region, he presents municipalities with a model ordinance that includes what he considers best practices for zoning and sign-type regulation. In Mt. Lebanon, for example, billboards are not technically prohibited, but only allowed a two-block-long stretch of commercial space. They’re not zoned to be anywhere else. Fox Chapel, he said, doesn’t allow them at all.
But zoning and regulation doesn’t necessarily impact older billboards. In outdoor advertising-speak, these are considered “nonconforming” signs. According to Pittsburgh’s ordinance, these billboards are “lawfully existing” even though they no longer meet the requirements placed on new construction. Two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s approximately 1,000 billboards are nonconforming.
“We can’t get rid of the old ones,” Dawida said. “But they wouldn’t pass today.”
Nonconforming status entered many Pittsburgher’s vernacular after a large, yellow vinyl Sprint advertisement replaced the longtime Bayer-owned billboard on Mt. Washington. City officials have expressed disapproval over its placement, while Lamar—the current owners of the billboard—say the sign doesn’t violate the city’s municipal code. The two parties are currently in litigation over whether the 7,200 nonconforming billboard can exist on the hillside as-is.
Lamar owns about 4,000 billboards in the greater Pittsburgh region -- more than any other company. They’ve been advertising here since 1999 and wrote in an email to WESA that their clients use billboards to “build their brand awareness and attract new customers.” Lamar caters to a number of national brands, like McDonald’s or Bud Light, which have bigger budgets for outdoor advertising.
But these large corporations aren’t typical for Mitchell Fowkes, owner of Steel City Billboards. He started the company in 2011 and said he usually works with small, local businesses.
“We have a couple attorneys, landscaping companies, stuff like that,” Fowkes said. He has five locations and 22 sign faces, and said Pittsburgh is a “wonderful” market for outdoor advertising. He approaches the criticism of billboards pragmatically.
“A lot of people out there don’t like billboards, they’re not really attractive-looking sometimes. I get that,” he said. “We kind of have a good heart about it and we’re just kind of like, ‘hey we’re just trying to build our business and go from there.’”
Fowkes sees value in advertising’s contribution to the local economy. Recently, an area garage door company started working with Steel City Billboards on a junior board along Brownsville Road. Fowkes said the client’s business increased after the sign was put up.
“We’ve really been able to help his brand,” Fowkes said. “That just makes you feel good that it’s really working.”
Outdoor advertising can still be the most effective way for local businesses to get their message out. It’s often cheaper than television ads and, depending on the company, can be placed strategically to target certain customers.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have the most billboards. According to an estimate by Scenic America (data doesn’t exist yet), the large markets of Los Angeles and New York likely hold that title.