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Board to Death



Now that the state of Massachusetts is free to marry off droves of gay couples, perhaps the time is right to discuss the nature of this human emotion we call disgust.

And maybe, just maybe, an admittedly labored correlation between the ugly sight of outdoor billboards and gay marriage might build a bridge of empathy between the liberal, environmental aesthetic and the conservative ranks of free-market advocates.

Conservatives throw out all manner of arguments against gay marriage in their endless quest to have power over the lives of others. The traditional family is “holy.” Only men and women were meant to be together in that way. An ancient religious text (that also condones slavery, by the way) says it’s wrong. What conservatives really mean to say is that they don’t like gays and gay marriage the same way some people don’t like brussels sprouts. They just don’t like them.

Environmentalists probably don’t hate billboards as much as conservatives hate gays. There is no “God Hates Billboards” faction, and it’s doubtful that anyone’s told the people at Reagan Outdoor Advertising that they’re going to hell. But we still view billboards with an incandescent fury. People are free to like or dislike gay people on an individual basis, but it’s all too easy to hate—I mean really hate—the existence of every single billboard brought into existence.

No one should be surprised that our spineless Salt Lake County Council couldn’t muster the courage to throw Reagan Outdoor Advertising and its “cap-and-bank” proposal out the window. Money talks, and the billboard people have lots of it to contribute to political campaigns, not to mention billboard space during election time. So now the unincorporated areas of our county will be host to a game of musical billboards, wherein one may be torn down to be placed somewhere else. Striving to point toward the silver lining, proponents said we’d be host to no more billboards than what we already have. What we need is an outright ban.

We’ve heard the arguments of the outdoor advertising industry. They contribute charitable and nonprofit advertising. Sharing a page with hated telemarketers, they invoke the First Amendment and commercial free speech. Then there’s this howler from a billboard company Website: “When you see neat, well-kept billboards you know that the area you are in is not abandoned.”

Loads of people make charitable contributions, but they don’t trot them out to make excuses for a product as ugly and intrusive as a billboard. As for free speech, people are free to open a newspaper, block telemarketing calls, or turn on the television. We are not free to avoid oversized boards crying, “Made You Look! Made You Look!” According to a 1980 Federal Highway Administration study, people even die from automobile accidents as a result of billboards. Even famous ad man David Ogilvy wrote, “The world would be a safer, prettier place without billboards.”

But even without the arguments of safety and beauty, I’ll go out on a limb with conservatives to say that communities without billboards—Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and cities such as Santa Fe—are “holy.” I’ll also state that the outdoors wasn’t meant for their use. Ultimately, I’ll rest on the fact that I just don’t like them.