The billboards on Route 1

March 20, 2022

Driving either way on Route 1 between Bethany and Milford, but more pronounced traveling south from Milford, we are confronted with at least a hundred signs and symbols advertising products, services, homes and more.
The pictures and prose are in large print and raised well above our driving eyes, but somehow, we see them and comprehend their messages. Talk about multitasking! Our brains must comprehend one message after another while maintaining absolute concentration on the task of operating our given motor vehicle. I suspect that a certain degree of autopilot (yes, a bit of a pun) comes into play as we drive and read. The specifics of the individual billboards are not important for the purposes of this particular column; the point this author is attempting is the fact that we are bombarded with sales information along Delaware’s and America’s highways.

The high-hanging messaging is most effective in that we see it and read it from a relative distance, with a pictorial image which gets almost instantly imprinted in our minds. The large-lettered words are few but effective, and when interspersed with the picture(s), the message is sent and received. I recall using a similar method when my children were learning to read, in that their mother and I labeled the common items around the house so they saw the item (curtain, for example) and the word attached thereto. The house would not have received the Good Housekeeping Award, but both children could read prior to entry into first grade. There is something about a poster! We see it, we read it, we mentally register it. Let’s get back to 2022 and the well-trafficked Route 1 with its many billboards.

By the time we have traversed from the Hertrich and I.G. Burton dealerships and reached the Miracle Mile, hundreds of messages have been sent to us, although we do not realize it. The trick is that we do not comprehend them all at once; it takes several trips down the highway, but eventually several of those messages penetrate. Such is the goal of the vendors who use billboards for advertising purposes: the builder, the bagel baker, the retail outlet, the restaurant, and so many more desire our business and our dollars. The billboard is both attractive and lucrative.

Modern technology has improved upon the basic wood structure with new, colorful, mobile messages which are easier to see and read, especially at night. The challenge with our more modern displays is that the message is gone much more quickly than the eye can discern, and we must add a bit of imagination to what the full visual lighted display is attempting to convey to us. We are perplexed as to why the advertiser did not give us, the readers, a little more time to digest the message. After all, there are automobiles in front of and behind us competing for both road and reading space.

Complementing the larger, well-placed billboards is the smaller, less elevated signage which adorns the strip or mini malls, identifying specific stores within the given complex. There are probably thousands of these on the same identified route giving us less information, but telling us where we want to go, and where we want to be. What is special about these miniature versions of the billboard is that upon sight and identification, we exclaim, “Oh there it is,” often after a drive-by in error. Accurate and correct information, however conveyed, is essential for our calm and peaceful traverse of the universe. Skyward messages on the road work well in that regard. They work especially well when there is a passenger who can read and then relay the advertisement as we focus on events on the actual highway.

The billboard has been around for quite a while, and with good reason. It conveys a visual and written message which has a payback in monetary dividends, and hopefully, too, with a positive psychological plus. This is not an inexpensive method of advertising, and for good reason. We notice that the ad for oranges today will be a sign for apples several months later. We also observe from time to time the ugly blank billboard which we abhor with the words, “I hope somebody buys that space soon.” We want the billboard to say something, to convey something, to mean something, to be something. We even wish that at least one of those big signs shall become a memorable part of the trip, and oh yes, that great big “DOLLE’s” sign (albeit not a billboard) now to be displayed a bit farther west on the Avenue in Rehoboth Beach.

  • Peter E. Carter is a former public school administrator who has served communities in three states as a principal, and district and county superintendent, for 35-plus years. He is a board member for Delaware Botanic Gardens and Cape Henlopen Educational Foundation, and the author of a dual autobiography, “A Black First…the Blackness Continues.”

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