Retrospective Look At The US Outdoor Advertising

We see lots of unknown faces staring at us from magazines and bright big boards on a daily basis nowadays. They want us to use their new product or put on a dress they sell. Catchy slogans on the facades, store windows and trains became a regular thing in our lives.


It’s really hard to imagine the central avenue of the smallest city without the ads yelling at us and trying to engage us. However, that’s not how it was many years ago. Do you still remember those days? Good!

If you were born in Europe or the Soviet Union, it’s pretty hard for you to imagine that everyone had been looking at the world with big city lights and advertising banners from the very beginning of XX century. Yeah, that’s right, I said the XX century, you got it right. Let’s dive a bit deeper.

The actual advertising experience of the United States market is a real deal, cause our country approached the slogan creation process as some kind of a science. Our advertising signs always looked like the examples of modern art that professional and regular citizens could admire.


The reasons why our advertising market worked like that was simple: technological and industrial growth combined with the most creative and progressively-minded young specialists simply couldn’t work out better.

So it’s really no wonder that US is still ahead of all the other countries in the world in the advertising industry since the XIX century. All these huge boards served as decorations for almost every meter of the buildings and warehouses in New York, Washington and while East Coast of our beloved country.

You couldn’t really find an empty facade of any architectural object in big or small cities. Nowadays you may all know that the city authorities fight in long battles in order to clear the central streets from unnecessary advertising materials, However, back then you had to deal with the real trouble caused by the absence of light. That’s because some street signs could be higher than 20 meters and covered the windows of the first and ground floor inhabitants.


Unfortunately, nobody really wanted to hear their complaints. I’ll tell you more, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) appeared in 1981 and started lobbying the interests of business, supporting the ads manufacturers. Complainers didn’t have any chance in this unfair fight and had to deal with it.


More than 15 years later this same association finally standardized the advertising boards and signs manufacturing process, so more and more agencies popped up and started to produce those in a large circulation.

The owners of the tastiest and wealthy spots decorated it with the variety of light, like all type of lights they could find on the market. For example, New York’s Normandie Hotel showcased a huge image of a racing chariot — the symbol of the Rice Electric Display Company. This board included 20, 000 lamps of a different kind and a very powerful engine.

The program managed to show a 30-second ad with a frame rate of 42 frames per second. It was a stunning image and a huge success. New York authorities had to call the special police unit to make sure that everything will go well and the crowd won’t do something stupid while staring at this advertising miracle.

If that sounds amazing to you, make sure you’re ready to hear the next one, cause we are just beginning. Back in 1913 people witnessed a special education committee that demanded that all the members of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) had to start donating money for the development of the first public and free advertising boards for the social advertisement.

They World War I gave plenty of content for this kind of boards and people witnessed a call to action, an appeal to the society stating that our country needs more workers to manufacture the needed products for the US Navy. However, you could also see a few non-commercial organizations that showcased pacific slogans and appealed to people’s heart and mind in their fight against the war.

If you believe that these are all the purposes that these free public boards could serve for you are very wrong. Later on, some volunteers asked for money in order to heal the wounded soldiers and started more and more charity advertisement programs.

Basically, we should all thank this committee for the fact that nowadays anyone can ask for help completely free of charge and millions of people will see this message or cry for help.


A new revolution in the advertisement market happened at the beginning of the XX century. Georges Claude became the first person to decorate the American streets with the neon lights.

Back in 1924 scientists demonstrated the unique and fascinating things that anyone could do with neon and their first contract came to their hands faster than light. It was a contract for two advertising signs for the “Packard” dealership. The owner had to pay 24, 000 dollars for those neon signs. This big fat check that neon signs producers asked for their products didn’t really scare huge companies like Coca-Cola or Danone, so America became much brighter then.

Time went by and in 30’s the price of this technology became much lower, so the neon signs became more popular among the businessmen.

Can you even imagine how fast all the facades became decorated with the neon here and there? It’s no wonder that everyone started to use it to advertise their business, cause this kind of signs is waterproof, it’s easy no notice them at night and easy to use.

However, the real neon era existed in 40’s-50’s. Each and every facade in the cities had red colored neon signs. This hue was called the ‘liquid fire’ and the blaze of this fire covered the ground floors of every skyscraper in Manhattan.

The actual technology of the neon signs production is quite simple and became popular among the ad designers nowadays again. First, you create a frame with all the letters in it and put the neon tubes of one diameter in it. The tubes have to be shaped in the form of these letters, so every letter could be bright and highlighted form the inside.

I would say that the real record-holder among the neon-signs users is definitely New York. The whole city asked you to buy, refresh, invest, sign up, try again or try something for the first time. When the competition is so high, it’s not enough just to use standard neon frames and fonts. That’s where you need to take all your creativity and put it to a good use.

So one of those who decided to approach it more creatively is Coca-Cola Company. They created a huge board saying ‘Coca-Cola: The Pause That Refreshes’ and added a thermometer near the actual sign. Just imagine how useful this board was back then without all these fancy technologies like internet, smartphones, and weather predicting websites.

When you look around and find yourself in 40’s, there is nothing more useful than knowing what temperature is outside, so this board got more attention from citizens than a Hollywood celebrity could get, seriously.

Later on, this sign was replaced with even more awesome one: “The thirst knows no season”. Unfortunately, the board has been taken off in 60’s during the square reconstruction.


Of course, later neon had to take a step back and give a road to it’s more fancy and affordable brother — a fluorescent lamp. If you review the vintage photos of those times, you’ll definitely notice that the number of signs around the city is so big that your eyes get tired in a few moments. The same feeling was popular among those who lived in big cities. More and more facades god new fancy signs with lots of lamps back in 60’s on Times Square.

You can find new glass and plastic fluorescent images and faces of different celebrities. These boards looked much more eye-catching than simple metal texts and signs. This is a completely new step in the history of the world’s advertising market.

Not everyone knows, but at the same time, Japan started to produce the light-emitting diodes. However, US businessmen started to use it only in early 90’s and it’s not an anomaly. The was hidden in the profit hunger of the neon-signs manufacturers. They understood that the neon market is going down and wanted to get the most out of it, so they didn’t neglect using the dirtiest tricks like lying in mass media about the disadvantages of the new technologies.


Magazines and newspapers stated that diodes are dangerous for people’s health and everyone was scared and confused. We all remember the stories about the “benefits” of the lead paint and the advantages of the same plumbum usage in the gasoline production back in the 60’s! However, this is a completely different kind of story. The myth about the danger of diodes was destroyed at the beginning of the XXI century and diodes became more popular than ever.

Yes, we live in the era of digital technologies and we have access to all kind of information. We can use social media and a huge set of innovative advertising platform. However, when we look back at the retrospective American cities our hearts tremble, we get excited and start staring at those huge metal signs that were so full of life…

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