Billboard Monthly

December, 1st 2013

Memo From Frank

Have you tried the new Wendy’s Pub Chicken Sandwich? I was recently driving between Kansas City and St. Louis, and it was dinner time and I had to make the decision of which fast food place to hit. I thought about the normal establishments – McDonalds, Arby’s, Taco Bell. But I had seen a billboard earlier for the new Wendy’s Pub Sandwich, which is basically a chicken sandwich on a pretzel. The photo looked so darned appetizing that even my normal favorite – the Loco Taco – could not get it out of my mind. So I pulled into Wendy’s and gave their new creation a shot. It was absolutely fantastic. And it proved once again that we are all manipulated by billboards. Here I was, someone who has been in the industry for over 30 years, behaving just like those millions of people who have driven by my billboards. The moral is that billboards really work, they make fantastic point-of-purchase salesmen, and a chicken sandwich on a pretzel is the greatest invention on earth when you’re really hungry.

When Is A Billboard Read Too Short?

Will this billboard have a long enough read after the bridge obstruction?

A common dilemma on many billboard location is that one (or both) of the reads may be too short to attract or retain a suitable advertiser. This can often be the key factor between building the sign and abandoning the location, so it’s very important to understand the drivers that determine the short read from the impossibly short read.

At what point does the obstruction hit the view?

Many people see a billboard from a mile back and think it’s obstructed because there’s a tree in the middle of it. But it does not matter that there’s an obstruction until you are close enough to actually read the advertisement. This is a common perceived fault with signs that are extra tall. They tower over all normal obstructions – trees, power lines, premise signs – and spoil the reader into believing that any obstruction at all is fatal. But until you can read the copy, who cares if there’s an obstruction or two? So don’t worry about the long-distance obstructions.

The accepted minimum is 500’ of clear read.

The generally accepted measure of a sign is that it be free of obstructions from a distance of 500’ back from the sign until you pass by it. That’s the normal length of read you have in which the complete advertising copy is legible. Any sign that has a read shorter than 500’ is considered obstructed. Then it’s a matter of coming to terms with the damage to the advertising desirability.

The angle it hits the road is important

One way to offset the damage of an obstruction is to place the sign at a greater angle to the road. This extends the short read, by allowing you to gain valuable footage as the car approaches the sign. You can demonstrate this concept by taking an index card and holding it at a right angle to your face, and then parallel to your face – and all the angles in between. So weigh out the option of increasing the “V” of the sign to mitigate the short read.

Price an cure many ills

Virtually every sign has a value to an advertiser. The only question is if the ultimate value to the advertiser matches your budget. If all the signs on the highway rent for $900 per month, then the short read might be compelling to an advertiser at $500 – but does that make the sign worth building. So run the “what-if” scenarios of different rents for the billboard and see what your range of satisfactory rents would be.

Fight to clear all obstructions

Many sign owners do not fight hard enough to find a way to get rid of obstructions. I have bought many billboards that other deemed impossible, only to remove the obstacle and make a huge profit from it. Sometimes you can clear the obstacle by merely asking. I once was able to clear some trees on city property by calling and asking if it would be O.K. To my amazement, I was told that the trees were I the floodplain and did not belong there, and the city would be happy if I removed them all. Why did the former sign owner never learn this? They just assumed they would be told no, and were too chicken to make the call. In other cases, I was able to pay the neighboring property owner to remove the obstruction. You should try endlessly to get the job done.

Proactively stay away from future obstructions

The worst scenario for the sign owner is when obstructions are built down the road, and these were never factored into the sign’s budget. You can say that there popped up without notice, but the truth is that you can tell if a sign is subject to blockage in the future. The highway department moves slow and methodically, and you can see when there are plans to build additional bridges or medians long before they transpire. And a billboard being built next to land that is zoned for development is facing a hard road when the neighbor goes to build their premise signs. I once turned down a three sign package in Atlanta because the trees were barely clipping the bottom of the ads, and I knew that within 5 years the blockage would be severe. So use your head!


Short reads have been a part of the industry since the earliest days. You can factor in short reads into your economics, as well as mitigate the effects. The key is acknowledge the problem and the risks, and use your best guesses on the monetary impact and budget accordingly. Short reads – while nobody’s favorite – are hardly the death of a billboard if proper consideration is given.

Are We Under Alien Invasion?

No, we’re simply getting out of the terminal at LAX Airport in Los Angeles. LA has always been on the cutting edge, and such was the case for the modern billboard industry, which traces its roots to Foster & Kleiser – two bicycle repairmen – who believed that the advent of the automobile would have a profound impact on the possibilities of outdoor advertising. Much of the sign sizes and theory that we use today began with the testing and principles adopted by the industry pioneers.

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