Billboards

“From start to finish I found no strangers.  If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively.  But these are my people and this my country.  If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

One of our sources of information, wonder, and hilarity on our long journey across the desert was billboards, a form of mobile advertising for a mobile society. These days they even alternate; two or three adverts (a.k.a. advertisements) will cycle through on a single electronic billboard, just in case you happen to be sitting in traffic. They wouldn’t want you to get bored looking at the same ad for more than five seconds. These billboards are sparse, though still present, on the open road in the middle of long sections of still-wild land. But they build in a crescendo of marketing as you near what counts as civilization, until they reach their riotous climax in the heart of the next city.

We saw billboards advertising the newest models of pickup trucks: “It swallowed a luxury car.” “If it were any tougher it would be making its own license plate.” Steinbeck knew that American automobiles “are made to wear out so that they must be replaced.” (43) This is “the greatest selling appeal of all – one that crawls through nearly all American life. Improvements are made on these [models] every year. If you are doing well you turn yours in on a new model…if you can possibly afford to. There’s status to that.” (76) Not much has changed, apart from the ubiquity of the advertisements trying to convince you to trade up so you can move up.

But America has also moved into whole new realms of advertising. Even hospitals need billboards these days. We saw one depicting a man on a stretcher being lifted into an ambulance. He looked strangely content under the circumstances, and the slogan in huge letters across this incongruous scene read, “Take me to Swedish.” It was clearly his choice of hospital that made him forget his potentially life-threatening injury. A byline at the bottom of the billboard informed us that the emergency room is open 24/7, as if there were any other option.

You know healthcare is in a sad state when you need to pay for advertisements for hospitals. As if anyone who’s just been found bleeding copiously at the site of a serious car accident will say to the police or paramedics, “Take me to Swedish. I saw their ad, and their ER is open 24/7. Looks like a nice place.” Of course not. If you need the ER you’re going to go to the nearest one, because that’s the definition of emergency.

A billboard for a new wing at Presbyterian Hospital advertised their 34 new private rooms. Because who wants to share?

The highways are also blemished with dozens of billboards for personal injury lawyers. They even have blogs and websites with names like “justice for victims,” as if “justice” and “victim” are words that should be applied to car accidents. This is how important words and concepts lose all real meaning. You’re not a victim because someone accidentally rear-ends you at a stoplight; that’s an accident. That’s why it’s called an accident.

We wonder whether it’s too easy in America to lose sight of what real suffering is. We’ve even commoditized victimhood. The idea that you can put a price on justice is a fundamental misunderstanding of what justice is. Advertising becomes a way to borrow nobility and apply it to the ignoble random occurrences of life.

Together with ideas of justice and victimhood, the concept of need has lost its anchor in reality. At one point we drove past an enormous grey warehouse called the Windchime Center. Because you need a whole center devoted to something as essential as windchimes. Tourist routes in the Southwest are lined with rock shops. Just in case you couldn’t find a suitable rock on your own, Dave’s Rocks can meet all your rock-buying needs. Advertising no longer caters to our needs; beginning with Henry Ford all the way through its latest incarnation in Steve Jobs, advertising creates wants and repackages them as needs.

In no place on our travels was this invention of new necessities more evident than in Los Angeles. LA is packed from the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains, stuffed several stories deep with every conceivable thing its citizens could invent or imagine. When we revisited Denver, we noticed that many things had changed. There was new urban sprawl, new houses, new businesses. But revisiting LA, there was no room for new sprawl. The only way to go is up, and this is evident in the advertising methods, the huge number of billboards and sky signs and enormous banners towed behind tiny airplanes, all pushing some new artificial necessity of plastic, steel, or silicon. And somewhere, sometime, someone says, “Hey, I need that!”

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