Sign of the Times: How Billboards Remain Ageless

Billboards are a unique part of American culture. And one of the reason for this are the timeless quality of an advertising form that is centuries old, dating back to the Egyptians. Indeed, the old adage “everything old is new again” is 100% accurate regarding outdoor advertising. So what makes billboards always new and original despite their age?

Today’s dimensions were derived in the 1920s

Any discussion of the timeless quality of billboards should begin with the consistency of the product over a long period of time. Most billboard dimensions were derived from the advent of the automobile in the 1920s, thanks to the work of Foster & Kleiser, who served as the virtual fathers of the industry. Because of this consistency, billboards rarely become obsolete – with no new models to replace the old. There are few industries that can claim that the 1920 model looks just like the 2020 model. A century without change is unique and important.

Unbelievable longevity

Billboards probably have the longest shelf life of any American business. The average billboard in the U.S. has probably been standing for at least 50 years. This is because ground leases typically last for 30 years plus, and then typically get renewed for a like term. And the structures are incredibly strong and resilient. Whether it’s steel monopole, steel I-beam or even telephone pole, these things seem to never wear out as they are built for the long haul. Even windstorms – the natural predator to billboard happiness – have to be extreme to have any effect and even then the structures themselves rarely come down, just the vinyl advertisements.

Built for adaptation

While billboards never really change from a structural or positional perspective, the ad faces themselves are extremely adaptable. Prior to the 1990s, all billboard messages were hand-painted either on-location or in a shop on wooden or metal panels, which then had to be installed on the sign. Then came the vinyl revolution and all ads today are printed on vinyl and then that’s placed on the ad fact. But even the latest technology – LED – fits right on the existing billboard structures. And then there’s tri-vision (three rotating panels) and other fads that came along the way. Billboards offer extreme compatibility with all technologies, and have seamlessly transitioned through any number of configurations. Take, for example, poster panels of 12’ x 24’ in size that can fit side-by-side on a single 14’ x 48’ sign. This ability to transform to any modern demands makes the signs timeless as far as the ads are concerned.


Billboards have lasted for a century in the U.S. and yet seem as up-to-date as ever. This ageless quality makes them a potent advertising resource, as well as an extremely stable platform. Nothing makes you feel better about your investment than the knowledge that there is no risk of obsolescence and that you are dealing with a product that can morph into whatever format advertisers feel is in their best interests.

Frank Rolfe has been a commercial real estate investor for almost three decades, and currently holds nearly $1 billion of properties in 25 states. His books and courses on commercial property acquisitions and management are among the top-selling in the industry.