Blank billboards stoke economic and existential anxiety

All of the blank billboards around Myrtle Beach have me anxious, for a couple of reasons.

In the first place, they remind me of a story about the time John Lennon met Yoko Ono — not an anxious story in itself, but one that leads me to anxiety.

While at one of Ono’s exhibits, Lennon saw a ladder leading up to a canvas, and a spyglass was hanging from a chain on the canvas. Lennon climbed the ladder and looked through the spyglass, where he saw one simple word: “YES.”

How affirming.

But when the Myrtle Beach area’s blank billboards reminded me of that story, I remembered one essential detail incorrectly. Instead of “YES,” I had remembered the image being a question mark: ?.

Imagine if that had been the case: You climb a ladder, look through a spyglass expecting to see something intentional, something purposeful, something the artist wants to communicate, but there’s a question mark, throwing your curiosity back at you — so what did you expect to see? That might be the more interesting question than why Ono drew attention to YES.

So, as you’re driving along U.S. 17 Bypass or U.S. 501, your eyes are likely glance at the billboards.

The desire to look up at the billboards and the expectation of seeing something on them are instantly thwarted when the sign is blank.

What did you expect to see there? What did you hope to see?

Are the answers to those questions too much to ponder?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is existential anxiety.

But there’s also another type of anxiety spurred by these billboards. It relates to our current economic “recovery.”

You’re kind of a captive audience while driving to and from work, and advertisers know this.

According to a 2009 study by Arbitron, among those of us who are 18 years of age or older, billboards play important roles in our lives:

58% of us learned about an event we were interested in attending;

58% of us learned about a restaurant we later visited;

56% of us talked about something funny we saw on a roadside billboard

68% of us frequently or sometimes make our shopping decisions while in the car

38% of us make the decision to stop at the store while on our way home

24%  of us say we were motivated to visit a particular store that day because of an outdoor ad message

32% of us visited the retailer we saw on a billboard later that week

50% of us reported receiving directional information from a billboard

24% said we have immediately visited a business because of an outdoor ad message

So those four-year-old Arbitron statistics give me several more reasons to be anxious about the direction of our economy.

The business folks know billboards are advantageous, and many of the billboards in my area are blank. Cash flow must be tight, if not in negative territory.

If only life could be more like the movies.

A transportation billboard is one of the main characters in a personal favorite, L.A. Story. Steve Martin wrote the screenplay and starred in the film.

Early in the movie, the electronic billboard starts spelling out messages for Martin’s character when car trouble forces him to the side of the road. The benign message “freeway clear” suddenly transforms into “hiya,” and a conversation begins.

The billboard gives Martin’s character a riddle to solve, and that riddle holds the answer for what Martin’s character should do next.

Apparently, the wisdom held within the riddle will be something more meaningful than “keep right” or “dense fog ahead.”

How peculiar that a sign could seem so meaningful while its meaning isn’t completely clear. It’s both mystical and existential, an odd moment when everyday, mundane matters seem to intersect with something like a greater reality, causing human decisions take on new gravity.

But with these blank billboards, no wisdom awaits us. We can only look forward to anxious questions and economic gloom.

-Colin Foote Burch