Outdoor Advertising Association of Wisconsin Resources
A Billboard Primer
Outdoor advertising is one of the earliest forms of communication. "Advertising" by writing and/or drawing on walls has been around since the very origins of human civilization. And in this country, the "posting of bills" has been in existence throughout our history and, in fact, played a significant role in the American Revolution.
As an industry, the history of outdoor advertising is highlighted by the fact that what is today the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) is the oldest trade association in the U.S. This organization began as the "Billposters Association" well over one hundred years ago.
What is outdoor advertising?
The greatest misconception about outdoor advertising is that it is often confused with on-premise business signs. People will refer to "billboard jungles" in areas where no billboards exist. These are instances when there is a strip of roadway dominated by on-premise business signs.
On-premise signs advertise goods or services offered by the business on the property on which the sign is located.
Off-premise signs (or billboards or outdoor advertising signs) advertise goods or services which are not sold, produced, manufactured or furnished on the property where the sign is located.
Who owns outdoor advertising signs?
Probably a little over half of the outdoor advertising signs in Wisconsin are owned by one of the twenty or so major companies in Wisconsin which are members of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Wisconsin (OAAW). The other half are owned by the business wishing to advertise to the traveling public. For instance, a restaurant may advertise in a given community by contracting with a billboard company like those in the OAAW, or the restaurateur can make arrangements with a landowner to pay rent in exchange for using his land to erect a sign. The restaurateur would have to get the necessary permits, and have his own structure built and an ad designed and painted, or printed.
Who uses outdoor advertising signs?
In Wisconsin the vast majority of billboards advertise tourism. More than 70% of the billboards in the State advertise hotels, restaurants, tourism attractions, gas stations, golf courses, campgrounds, and other tourism related businesses.
The overwhelming majority of business advertised on billboards across the State are Wisconsin businesses. A small percentage of billboards advertise national products.
Outdoor advertising is used because it is the most cost effective means of reaching the traveling public. Billboards are much less expensive per "contact" than are advertising on TV, radio or in print.
How is outdoor advertising regulated?
Groundbreaking regulation of the outdoor advertising industry began with the efforts of Ladybird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Johnson. Her efforts culminated in passage of the Federal Highway Beautification Act (HBA). This federal legislation was designed to regulate and set standards for billboards. The Act was never intended to eliminate all billboards. Through the HBA, the States were ordered to enact state laws in accordance with the Federal Act. The laws regulating billboards are in chapter 84.30 of the Wisconsin Statutes. The administrative rules which further delineate State law are in Trans. 201. The State law requires a permit for billboards visible from a state highway, or federal aid primary highway, the freeways, and interstates. The law sets standards for size, spacing, and lighting of billboards.
According to the HBA, new billboards can only be erected in areas zoned commercial or industrial. In unzoned areas, the billboard must be adjacent to a bona fide business.
All signs in existence when the HBA became law and when the State adopted the federal law in 1972, which did not meet the new requirements, were grandfathered. These are legal, nonconforming signs today.
Local jurisdictions can also regulate outdoor advertising. Cities, villages, towns, and counties can either defer to State law or enact their own ordinances. Because local municipalities determine zoning, they essentially control where billboards can be erected.