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Wednesday, Feb 12 1997
Where the Coppertone Girl and Carl Lewis Roam
S.F. isn't what you'd think of as billboard country. That designation would seem to belong more to the glitzy, like Vegas, or the gritsy and redneck, say Atlanta. But billboards have a long history in the Bay Area, with one local company going back a century, and S.F. is home to a shrine of sorts for devotees of the genre.

Billboards are the rawest mass medium -- they can't be turned off or tuned out. But they're consumed quickly. Designers figure they have an average of three seconds to get their pitch across. Because billboards assault the eye, when they don't work, they're shrill and tasteless (hence, the phrase "billboard blight"); but when they do, they make for advertising iconhood, like the Coppertone Girl or Carl Lewis bounding out of the frame for Nike.

Billboards can never escape their coming of age in the post-World War II, highway-laced sprawl of the suburban United States. They touted all the prime products of that age and helped establish many of the major consumer brands still on the market today: Nabisco, Ford, Palmolive, Ivory, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, to name a few.

By the '60s, however, billboards' image had started to slip. In the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, they had been singled out for specific restrictions. And television had slowly eviscerated their impact.

But billboards never disappeared completely. And through it all, S.F.'s contribution to billboard legend stood tall, in the form of the Skyway, a parade of dozens of boards running alongside I-80 from the Bay Bridge to Highway 101. (Boards there fetch from $10,000 to $20,000 a month.) For aficionados the corridor ranks right up there with the Vegas strip, Sunset Boulevard, and Times Square.

Today, billboards are enjoying something of a resurgence in the popular imagination. "Advertisers have gone back to outdoor since the '90s began," says Stephen Freitas, national marketing head for Eller Media. He spoke last week from the company's Phoenix headquarters. Northern California, with S.F. at its hub, is "probably the most dynamic outdoor market in the nation," he says. This region "has an appeal to the outdoor advertiser because of the product mix and the geography."

Eller, with local offices in the Berkeley flats, dates back nearly 100 years and is the largest billboard purveyor in Northern California, ahead of its only other big operator, Outdoor Systems, which works out of Oakland. The latter is the leading outdoor company in the country. Both have supplemented their billboard inventory through aggressive pursuit of transit ads and "street furniture" work, the "product mix" Freitas referred to.

The geography here is conducive because "[y]ou've got the bay right in the middle," Freitas says, so that people spend a great deal of time driving around it in predictable, easy-to-measure patterns. And the mild climate is physically forgiving to billboard materials.

Billboards are a venerable art form. Industry lore dates them back to the Pharaohs (obelisks have been found with hieroglyphic inscriptions that are the equivalent of "Eat at Joe's"). Starting in the early years of this century, cars and billboards grew up together. Henry Ford is said to have personally written the copy for the first billboard touting his products. What better place to reach drivers?

A survey of the Skyway last week showed that car ads still dominate the medium. In a nod to the Skyway's lofty stature in the industry, Absolut vodka has placed one of its rare and costly painted bottles there. It's a Kenny Scharf composition (that looks surprisingly wan), adorned with a whimsical spray of old-fashioned, wind-driven sequins bubbling out the neck.

The Absolut billboard harks back to the medium's early years, when advertisers commissioned fine artists to create evocative brand images. That's how Coca-Cola got its Santa Claus, and its girl on the beach, reaching for the real thing. And how Proctor & Gamble came up with its first fresh-faced virginal women for Ivory soap.

Although billboard companies rarely employ painters as famous as Scharf, most billboard production still involves artists applying images to a surface. Eller and Outdoor Systems have enough work to keep four or five employed full time.

Last week, Sean Robertson, Outdoor Systems' creative director, showed off the company's studios in the Berkeley flatlands next to the freeway. The ceiling rises a couple of stories above a floor about as big as two tennis courts. Huge vinyl sheets hang suspended on racks. As many as 10 or 15 billboards are being created here at any given time.

The most significant innovation in billboard manufacture was the development of affordable vinyl sheeting about 10 years ago. The initial outlay is much higher than the traditional paper, Robertson explains, but vinyl can be reused. The only limitation to how many times it can be repainted is the weight it acquires from repeat applications.

(This has nothing to do with why so many billboards are hanging in strips of late. That defect, called "flagging" in the industry, is due to the recent heavy rains. Boards here are particularly affected because California environmental rules require the use of water-soluble adhesives.)

Computers are also having an impact, with the stepped-up use of electronically created images that are printed directly onto the vinyl. In the studio, Robertson points out the color dots in a computer-generated ad for the California Milk Advisory Board. From up close, they are about the size of thumbtacks. But the new technology can never fully displace the old. Small images are still converted to billboard scale with "effectively the same thing Michelangelo used," Robertson says. A magnified version is used to make a perforated paper pattern, which the artist transfers onto the painting surface by using an old-fashioned "pounce," a cloth sack full of charcoal dust.

Billboards are indeed throwbacks. Their intrinsic nostalgia value plays to the current vogue in things retro on Seventh Avenue and in Hollywood. One campaign that evokes billboards' old-time feel into the message itself is a series of ads for Lucky Strike, which has been up since late last fall.

It shows lank-haired Gen-Xers striking brooding poses in gritty urban street- and roofscapes. Nothing unusual in that. But the art director has played with the red-circle Lucky Strike logo (itself unchanged for at least half a century). Usually it's painted on an element in the streetscape, a manhole cover, a table, and sometimes (joke, joke) a sign.

One of the cleverest renditions can be found on an extra-long Outdoor Systems billboard on Mission near Second Street. The spot is prime SOMA/Gen-X territory in the minds of marketers. It is also a fitting aesthetic choice for this particular piece of art. (Neither Brown & Williamson, which makes Lucky's, nor its agency, N.Y.-based Grey Advertising, wished to discuss the campaign.)

In the billboard, three twentysomething Lucky's models pose in a landscape that looks straight out of New York's Lower East Side. On a misshapen brick wall behind them is painted a Lucky's logo, distorted by the wall's irregularities. In a real-life echo of the contrived image, the actual billboard is mounted on the side of an old building, whose own brick wall extends beyond the sign. The Lucky's ad is the first to grace the spot, which is under lease to Foster Media. As a 2-year-old independent, Foster is a rarity in itself. (A few small operations do manage to eke out a living in the shadow of the conglomerates.)

Founder John Foster (who quit his job with a larger company to start his own) said in an interview Monday he was "personally very pleased" with the campaign. That particular billboard -- a "wallscape," actually -- is unusually large, 25 feet high by 120 feet long, or 3,000 square feet. Imagine an ad on a bus side, and multiply it 100 times. That makes it a "spectacular," as Foster put it, which is Foster's specialty. He declined to say how many his company has. In the hundreds? "I wish," he said.

The Lucky's billboard went up in October, but, Foster warned, the location will only be usable as long as the parking lot it overlooks remains unbuilt-on. "As things are developed," he said, "the billboards disappear."

But until then, they're impossible to miss.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail:

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick


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