They are seen every day by thousands of local residents, looming over highways and parking lots. Through rain and high winds, they stand resolute and unmoving, bearing their messages for all to see.
They are billboards, and in Dubuque, many of them have stood for decades thanks to the efforts of the companies that maintain them, such as CR Signs.
“The billboard platform is a fairly residual business,” said Aaron Vosmek, CEO of CR Signs, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, company that manages nine billboards in Dubuque. “It’s been a reliable industry for many years.”
While the history of billboards can be traced back to the 1500s, their modern iteration took form in the 1830s, when businessman Jared Bell printed the first billboards advertising circus acts in New York. Since then, billboards have spread throughout the world.
For the companies that manage them, the appeal of billboards is an easy sell to potential advertisers, Vosmek said.
“It’s something that you know thousands of people are going to see,” he said. “You can use billboards to target specific local demographics.”
Vosmek said CR Signs largely acts as a management company for the billboards’ individual private investors, with the company only owning a fraction of the boards it manages. The company handles the selling of advertisement space for the boards and performs regular maintenance of the structures.
Jim Schumacher is general manager of Lamar Advertising in Dubuque, which manages several billboards in the city.
“We have a full staff that service and maintains our signs,” Schumacher said. “We upgrade structural and electrical components as needed, and regularly paint our inventory to provide the highest standards possible for our customers and the communities we serve.”
Vosmek said his company largely uses U.S. Department of Transportation traffic count data in order to set the individual rates of each board. The more traffic that passes each location, the higher the rate.
“The more eyes we are getting on the billboard, the more valuable that billboard is,” Vosmek said. “Obviously, you also have to take in customer demand.”
While the profitability of billboards largely has remained consistent during the decades, Vosmek said that only changed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Since many people had relegated themselves to quarantining at home, the levels of traffic also decreased dramatically, which in turn drained the billboards of their value.
“COVID had a big impact on billboards,” he said. “There just weren’t as many people to see them. Businesses weren’t as interested in advertising.”
Though advertising has evolved over the years to include numerous different methods of delivering a message to customers, several businesses see billboards as one of the more effective forms of advertisement.
Q Casino and Hotel regularly uses billboards both in and outside of Dubuque to attract patrons and inform them of upcoming concerts and events.
“We promote to our existing customers and to potential new visitors to the property,” said Jackie Lee, marketing director for the casino. “Billboards are an exciting tool to use, particularly if they are digital boards as that messaging can be changed much easier than traditional boards.”
The most significant technological advancement in the industry has come in the form of digital boards, which rely on electronic screens to display advertisements.
Schumacher said digital billboards often are placed strategically to ensure that customers can see the multiple ads that may cycle through each sign.
“We typically like to place them on high traffic arteries near stop lights,” Schumacher said. “It gives our target audience the chance to see the multitude of messages for our advertisers.”
Schumacher added that each digital billboard system also is tied to the AMBER Alert system, allowing each billboard to be taken over by an emergency warning at any time.
“We partner with our government agencies in order to disseminate important information to the traveling public,” Schumacher said. “Our network is tied to the Amber Alert system in the case of an emergency, such as a missing person. We can deliver information quickly with our digital platform to assist in whatever the needs are given the situation.”
Vosmek said he sees these boards as the future of billboard advertising. Not only do they allow for the displaying of multiple ads per structure, but also the content of the ads can be changed at any time nearly instantly. And while the digital boards require more maintenance, Vosmek said sensors on the structure can indicate to staff whenever a portion of the screen is not working.
“It’s getting harder and harder to put in new locations with billboards due to regulations, so there is going to be an increase in retrofitting structures to digital,” Vosmek said.
However, the growth of billboards often is constrained by state and local regulations. In 1972, Iowa lawmakers passed stricter regulation on advertising signs with the intention of reducing the number of billboards in rural and residential areas.
Similar measures have been taken to regulate billboards in Illinois and Wisconsin. Illinois passed a law limiting the number of billboards on interstates and primary highways in 1979. Wisconsin passed a law regulating billboards in 1972, requiring permits for billboards visible from a state highway, federal aid primary highway, freeway or interstate.
Vosmek said some cities, including Cedar Rapids, have worked to reduce the number of billboards in the community. However, he believes that the billboard industry will remain a viable form of advertisement for the foreseeable future.