Billboards show area's faith in the beer industry

May 11, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND


In its ongoing effort to make itself look more like Vermont, Washington County is considering the banishment of roadside billboards.

No big loss, I suppose. I mean, what is there in Hagerstown to advertise? Pawn shops and Narcotics Anonymous meetings don't like to publicize their presence as a general thing.

On one hand, I can sort of see the county's point. Hagerstown is rapidly becoming the billboard capital of the free world. I don't know why. You would think companies would want to place their ads where there was a chance that more than 10 or 20 people would see them.

But they are popping up to the point where there are two routes you can go: Ban them altogether or try to use the billboards themselves as a selling point.


The tourism department could sponsor an annual BillboardFest with live bands, funnel cakes and the Parade of Billboards. It would be sort of like South of the Border, that cheesy tourist trap on Interstate 95 in South Carolina, whose Pedro billboards became more celebrated than the park itself.

We could promote the county, just as South of the Border did: "Hagerstown: You Never Sausage a Place" or "Hagerstown's Fire Works - Does Yours?" or "You're Always a Wiener in Hagerstown."

Actually, I had a friend who just stopped there last week because "We needed to buy a little WMD for the Fourth of July," and he reports that the billboards have been greatly scaled back due to political correctness. (The late owner, Alan Schafer, once told the Raleigh News and Observer, "We have to communicate with the present generation - these baby boomers have no sense of humor.")

So down came all the Mexican pigeon talk and the drunken Mexican stereotypes, like the billboard printed upside down with the words, "Oops, Too Mooch Tequila."

I think you can tell a lot about a community by its billboard content, and after a quick informal survey I was able to identify two themes that seem to be central to our community: Beer and Jesus.

They are everywhere. And sometimes right next to each other. God and Bud, butting heads for your attention. Perhaps they could join forces and save themselves some bread, with a slogan like, "This God's For You."

The God billboards, in my opinion, have had their run. They started out clever, but then got less and less amusing as time went on. You know, sort of like my columns.

I've had it with the beer billboards, too, even though we live in a state where three of our top officials are named Miller, Schaefer and Busch. You expect advertisements to stretch the truth, but come on. Beer as a diet food? Like Otis never would have ended up in the drunk tank on "The Andy Griffith Show" if he had known corn liquor was high-carb.

Billboard offensiveness, like anything else, is in the eye of the beholder. A long time ago, I had a friend in the retail trade who hated driving through the state of Maine because "they let all those trees grow up in front of the billboards."

And in central Pennsylvania along Interstate 81, you find yourself wishing for more billboards - anything to pass the time and take your eye off the slag heaps.

Mark these words down: In 50 years, billboards will be considered "historic" like the Mail Pouch barn sides. That or an integral part of "Americana" - which is short for "ugly, but familiar."

Personally, I'd favor getting rid of billboards. But in a profession where 90 percent of my salary is paid for by advertisements, I have to be careful here. It's kind of the same predicament you're in if you absolutely hate a relative who happens to be very rich.

The real advertising snafu, though, would have been if Major League Baseball carried through with its plan to put movie advertisements on the bases. Between the lines on a baseball diamond is the one place you like to think is sacred and safe from the long arm of Madison Avenue.

Fortunately, the public pitched a fit and baseball came to its senses and recognized there are some places that you should absolutely, positively not have to suffer through the indignity of an advertisement.

And notice all the baseball announcers were more than happy to tell us about how baseball maintained its traditional, Lilly-white purity - and they did so seamlessly, right between the Katz Insurance Run and the Esskay Out of Town Scoreboard.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at

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