Billboards versus the attention economy: critical essay from 1960

Here's Howard Gossage's February 1960 Harpers essay, "How to Look at Billboards," in which he argues for the impending demise of billboard advertising due to zoning rules. Gossage, an advertising exec has some well-thought-through tactical advice for the paleo-adbusters of the 1960s:

Do you see why it is a mistake to attack outdoor advertising on aesthetic grounds? The row then becomes a matter of comparative beauty and one can go on haggling about that forever. In a sense the garden clubs have led us down the garden path. For when the girls insist that they shall never see a billboard as lovely as a tree it then becomes legitimate to consider all the things a billboard is lovely as. There are quite a few: ramshackle barns, flophouses, poolrooms, cheap lodgings for ancient ladies with orange-tinted hair. Since the world is absolutely stiff with arguably uglier objects it may be some time before the billboards come down; presumably the last billboard will stand on top of the last shack.

The other thing wrong with the aesthetic line of attack is its utter irrelevancy. It is like arguing that mice should be kept out of the kitchen because they don't match the Formica. What a billboard looks like has nothing to do with whether it ought to be there. Nor does the fact that it carries advertising have anything to do with it, either. It would be the same thing if it were devoted exclusively to reproductions of the old masters; just as the open range would have been the same thing if they had only run peacocks on it. The real question is: has outdoor advertising the right to exist at all?


Outdoor advertising is peddling a commodity it does not own and without the owner's permission: your field of vision. Possibly you have never thought to consider your rights in the matter. Nations put the utmost importance on unintentional violations of their air space. The individual's air space is intentionally violated by billboards every day of the year.

Got other citations to proto-manifestos about the attention economy?

How to look at billboards (via Kottke)


  1. “I have a right to not see that thing I find objectionable” is the root of all prudish censorship. What makes this any different?

  2. @Cicada:

    Maybe the difference resides in being given a choice or not to see it. Billboards aren’t discrete.

  3. Now, I don’t like billboards much, but this article is a strawman of the highest order.

    It argues that outdoor advertisers are buying your attention, and they have no right to. It extensibly delves into the two arguments that outdoor advertisers use to supposedly justify their business.

    Except it completely fails to address the true argument that outdoor advertisers base their business around – they are simply renting space from property holders (sometimes private property, sometimes government). Who is anyone else to come between the property owner and the outdoor advertiser and tell them what to do?

    In cases where it’s on public property, most of the time it has had to pass local government’s zoning/building codes, at which point why should we stop people building billboards, when we won’t stop them building anything else?

    In many cases where the advertising is particularly ‘in your face’ (bus shelters for example), that’s because the structure itself has been built and maintained by the advertiser, who would suggest that if you don’t like the advertising, you get the hell out from under their structure.

    I’d agree that much outdoor advertising is an eyesore, but unfortunately, the alternatives are far more complicated that the article would lead us to believe.

  4. Of course in the UK, planning laws have banned billboards in the countryside since the 1920s. Its one of the few good things about Britain!

    And restricting billboards not just ‘censorship’. There are two reasons why: the first is economic – they are not an equal resource available to all and on a related note, advertising is not the same as free speech; the second is material – they are a construction that happens to have a message on them – societies have every right to regulate construction that affects social experience of space; and finally they are the visual equivalent of shouting – I have no objection to someone telling me something with which I disagree but I DON’T LIE THEM SHOUTING IT IN MY FACE! (see?)

  5. Billboards are NOT free speech, period. Corporations do not have a constitutional right to sell products. What flying monkey said.

  6. As much as I loathe billboards, I disagree with the writer’s argument.
    A person does not own their own field of vision any more than they on the airspace around their ears or that surrounding their nose. You cannot sue someone for farting in your immediate proximity (fortunately for me), and though there are laws against excessive or inappropriate noise you can’t expect others to shut the hell up when you want them to (unfortunately for me).
    If you are out in public you may see things that you do not enjoy whether it be people wearing white after Labour Day, Public Displays of Affection or two dogs mating on someone’s lawn (I guess that’s also a public display of affection, really).

    The writer is simply expressing an argument for the feeling of entitlement pervasive in our culture. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t entitle you to never have to experience it.

  7. You know, I never knew billboards were so “offensive” until I read the thread here praising people defacing them. In all my life, I never once stopped to tell myself that seeing billboards in any way harmed or bothered me. I guess my skin just isn’t thin enough.

    I find it especially ironic to see that attitude coming from people and a web site that tends to otherwise “fight for”/support personal liberties. Some of you fail to see the conflict in supporting other’s personal property rights, just as long as you aren’t “offended”– like some fragile Victorian spinster from a bad novel– by the very existence of advertising on other people’s property.

  8. Did you ever see that movie, “Friends With Money?” One of the plotlines involves a couple that buy a house on a hill in a nice neighborhood. They build a second story, completely oblivious to the fact that they are obliterating the view for several of the neighbors. Finally, the wife asks to see the construction from the neighbor’s house and realizes what a pig-headed thing they have done. Although the couple acted well within their “property rights,” they acted like assholes with zero sense of community. The husband keeps saying, “It’s our house. We can do what we want. Fuck the neighbors.” They end up getting a divorce. Its a really good movie, you should see it.

  9. The original 1960 essay by Howard Gossage, has little relation to what we now refer to as the ‘Attention Economy’.

    The “Attention-Economy” refers to the value of what an over-abundance of information consumes… i.e. our attention. If there was only 1 billboard every 10 miles, they would command our attention. When there’s an over-supply, the value of each billbaord becomes progressively less, and the value of our ‘attention’ increases. However, this is not what Gossage was discussing.

    Gossage was talking about ‘jurisdiction’ or the ‘right’ of advertisers to use the open highway as a ligitimate territory to advertise in. His point was that, because the viewer has not paid for the medium upon which the ads were served, the billboards should not even be regarded as advertising. i.e.

    [from the article] “…if you regard Outdoor as an advertising medium, which I don’t. It is not an advertising medium; it is isolated advertising.”

    It was a quirky 1960’s piece, and his prognosis was incorrect, as ‘Outdoor’ most certainly is an ‘Advertising Medium’ and hasn’t gone away. – However, like over-abundant web-advertising, ‘outdoor’ does consume our attention, making that attention more valuable. – But was this article about: “Billboards versus the attention economy”?


  10. Yes, there are rights to views. Whether you like it or not. Property rights are not absolute; you are liable for infringing on others. This is why zoning laws exist, this is why we have landmarks, this is why the government has regulatory powers.

    -Viewshed Laws
    -The book, God’s Own Junkyard
    -Ladybird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act
    -Driver distractions
    -The fact that billboards just have to keep shouting louder than each other

    That said I don’t know if I agree with this essay’s angle.

  11. I first read this article in Stay Free magazine in 2000. It was handed to me at the big Nader rally at MSG.

    I do agree that advertising generally comes as a tit-for-tat. For example, you get to watch Lost on ABC for free because you have to watch a commercial (a transaction for which you the viewer are being sold as a commodity to the advertiser, by the network).

    This argument also means that cable tv should have no commercials, since you paid for the service. Advertising should exist in mediums where you get something in return for being force fed a message which is trying to sell you something.

    I don’t like paying 12 dollars for a movie ticket, and also being sold at the same time to Pepsi, when their commercial shows before the trailers.

    When you look at a billboard, you get nothing in return. I can only imagine how much nicer my walk to the office would be if the landscape was billboard free (but also how strange and perhaps less appealing Times Square would be). But that will never happen.

  12. “Property rights are not absolute; you are liable for infringing on others. This is why zoning laws exist, this is why we have landmarks, this is why the government has regulatory powers.”

    But the problem is, the bar on what you are prevented from doing on your own property should be very high– you should only be prohibited from doing something that does physical, material harm to people surrounding you– producing chemicals on your property that run off onto surrounding lands, for example. But someone not liking to look at your property sets the bar very, very low. I’m of the opinion that if someone complains that you have a plastic pink flamingo on your lawn, the proper response is to put fifteen thousand plastic pink flamingos on your lawn.

  13. If they would just do something about the giant flashing brightly lit LED screens, that would be something – those really do cause car accidents.

    There’s one near my house, at a busy intersection that gets more than its share of accidents. It’s already a tricky intersection, so the billboard certainly doesn’t get all the blame, but I have myself been blinded and distracted by the thing while approaching the intersection. I ride a bike, so I have more time to seize my attention back than a motorist does, and I’ve noticed it even makes me less safe as I come up to that crossing.

  14. Billboards intrude upon you personal field of vison no less than any other advertising- except radio ads of course. All advertising can fall under the category of something we’d rather not have to see, because if we wanted to see these things they wouldn’t need to be advertised would they?

  15. Billboards and their regulation have been a hot-button issue in L.A. for a couple of years now, especially since the city’s been working on a new sign ordinance, the old city attorney got a lot of campaign support from billboard companies, there were a bunch of illegal billboards, etc.

    The thing is, I had no idea people found billboards objectionable until just a couple years ago when I first heard of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. I like billboards, at least in certain areas. In the past I’ve had regular commutes, and watching the billboards along the route gradually change over time helped liven up an otherwise monotonous trip. Plus, there were areas of town like Hollywood or the Sunset Strip where you knew exciting stuff happened because they had big billboards and supergraphics covering buildings. Then there’s the Hollywood Sign, which is nothing more than a giant billboard, and is protected as a cultural monument.

    I’ve engaged in a lot of spirited arguments with billboard opponents on local blogs, and I still don’t see things from their point of view. I’ll look at billboards, even digital ones, and try to imagine a sense of rage or affront that the billboard exists, and it just doesn’t work. They really don’t bother me.

  16. A few caveats:
    1. If the problem is unpermitted billboards popping up, then the solution is more enforcement, not more regulation.

    2. Obviously I wouldn’t want a lighted or digital billboard outside my bedroom window.

    3. I also wouldn’t want a billboard marring a scenic view. But when your view, otherwise, is auto dismantlers or oil refineries, what’s the point?

  17. As a graffiti artist I defaced many billboards. Also city property. I always thought of it as “all these corporations can put their advertising in my face, this is my way of putting my message in theirs.” However even I would not possibly argue that you somehow “own” your field of vision. You own a building, you own a vacant lot, you own a billboard. You can put whatever message you want on your property. It’s a double edged sword. If the billboard in question was an antiwar message, you probably would want it invading other people’s field of vision. For instance, the Liberty Street Protest:

  18. This is utter rubbish. Field of vision? Peddling inside my field of vision without my permission? Is this guy kidding?

    Someone built the Empire State building inside my ‘field of vision.’ I had no say in the matter. It peddles office space in my ‘field of vision.’

    Someone wears a T-shirt with ‘Metallica’ on it in my ‘field of vision.’

    The pyramids peddle an afterlife inside my ‘field of vision.’

    Actually, the only thing that matters is aesthetics.

  19. Smokers give off noxious fumes in my airspace and leave their cigarette butts everywhere. Nothing much gets done about that either. And while billboards might be unsightly, they don’t actually cause you bodily harm.

    Smokers have the right to smoke, so whatever side effects result from that are just too bad for everyone else. You can’t drink in public or be drunk in public yet for some reason smoking is allowed pretty much anywhere outside.

    So if we can’t get anything done about smoking (despite non-smokers outnumbering smokers 5 to 1 in the US) when secondhand smoke actually invades our body, this argument about billboards invading our “field of vision” doesn’t hold much water.

  20. There are plenty of forms of outdoor advertising besides billboards. A protest is also a form of outdoor advertising. The only difference is what is being hawked — a position versus a product. And in the case of billboards with an ideological rather than a commercial message, even this distinction is lost. The same arguments for or against protests can be used for or against billboards — they both involve intruding on the attention of people who don’t necessarily care about the message.

  21. lived with billboards, lived without them. Without is better.

    Re: The Attention Economy; when RFID skimming and facial recognition get cheap and ubiquitous so the billboards start to recognize me and call out my name to flog some personalized spiel for say embarrassing skin conditions (with the medical file data sold to them by the business my government sold me to), will I be angry I didn’t do something to prevent that?

    1. Adam,

      LA without Angelyne would be a poorer place. But there are other places where billboards would be a public nuisance. As with anything else, zoning can allow or disallow them where appropriate.


      People have to live in society. The doctrine of quiet enjoyment is a key component of real property rights. What you seem to be saying is that your definition of quiet enjoyment is more correct or important than everyone else’s definition.

  22. by what right do you claim to not have to listen to earsplitting noise broadcast from every direction by my advertising loudspeakers? Buy some earplugs.

  23. I hate billboards, but will fight to let people keep them on their property. If you want to paint your house pink, don’t live in a deed restricted community. If you don’t want to see billboards, live where they don’t exist. Don’t use government to force your views.

    Why stop at billboards? Why not ban all advertisement, everywhere? They’re in your television wasting your life 30 seconds at a time. Why? They pay for the content. Ads are a fact of life. Vote with your money, boycott products on billboards. It would work, but people just don’t care enough.

    Won’t you please think of the billboard manufacturers? :(

  24. Oh dear lord.

    This is the end result of smart people not having enough to occupy their minds. They come up with the most ridiculous arguments to support their gut instincts and whims.

  25. Like poster #12, I first read Gossage’s article in Stay Free! Magazine. Then, as now, I thought that Gossage’s argument is right on target, and I find it continually frustrating to find that the majority of people don’t seem to understand. Since then, I’ve gotten a masters in urban planning, and can now argue my position more strongly.

    What people believe about property rights and the the actual laws regarding land use are completely divergent. You may believe that you can do whatever the frack you want on your land, but its just not true. Cities have the ability to regulate signage, period. As noted above, lack of enforcement is the major problem.

    In planning law, a significant difference is outlined between ‘on-site signage’ and ‘billboards’, chiefly, that signage is advertising your services on your building and billboards are advertising your services on someone else’s land. Partly, this is an issue of local character. Billboards make every place look the same.

    Why should people have the inalienable right to profit on their land over your view? There are a million restrictions over blocking views- height restrictions, where you build on a lot, etc. There is no good argument in support of billboards, and Gossage’s article is a watershed in the literature.

  26. “if I, as an advertiser, have purchased from your government (owners) the rights to your sensory inputs, any failure or refusal on your part to absorb these inputs is an actionable breach of contract.”

    Get used to it.

  27. I’m not denying that the government has the right to regulate private property. I’m arguing that this specific attempt at regulation is a mistake, and the justification by the creation of a right to a uncluttered field of view is absurd.

    “There is no good argument in support of billboards,”

    I’m waiting to hear a good one against them.

  28. How is this different from opposing gay couples because you might see them together in public?

    1. How is this different from opposing gay couples because you might see them together in public?

      First of all, that’s attempted threadjacking. Second, because they don’t stand in front of your window for the rest of eternity, blocking your view and unless you live in Chernobyl, they’re not sixty feet high.

  29. Arguing that billboards should be regulated to prevent them from permanently blocking a resident’s window view is a much, much more reasonable argument than trying to eliminate them because they violate a right to a clear field of view.

  30. Very good comment, Bruno Bolisarte.

    I’d be OK with billboards if they paid for the roads. It’s the public-owned roads that are providing an audience, not the private land owner.

    I went to a festival recently that had zero advertising. It was so refreshing – like my eyes and mind had taken a four day nap. Which is especially surprising given the alcohol and late nights. It just felt really good not having my attention being grabbed every second.

    I’d love to see an end to this garish shit. Banning it would be a great move.

  31. Question: would regulation against billboards simply make advertisers more cunning about how they market their products outside, without necessarily being easier on the eye?

    Places where rich, bored commuters are bottlenecked on their way home are a marketing goldmine, and I don’t see the ad men backing off that space simply because they can’t use a billboard.

  32. @ANTINOUSI’m in.

    Great. Then I hope you renounce your support of protests, because they are just another form of advertisement.

    1. Then I hope you renounce your support of protests, because they are just another form of advertisement.

      Codswallop. Advertising exists to sell you things that you don’t need. Protests exist to get you stuff that you do need.

  33. Who is to decide what is “needed”? Also, many protesters seem to think we “need” bans on gay marriage and/or abortions. Not all protesters are advertising political viewpoints you or I may share.

  34. “Advertising exists to sell you things that you don’t need.”

    Equally codswollop. Many necessary services are advertised and I’m glad for them.

  35. And the first place I look for it, generally, is in aggregations of advertisement.

    If we “need” the message protesters are giving us, we’ll vote for it. Right?

    This is about nothing more than some people having a negative emotional reaction to advertisement and trying to twist up logical reasonings why it shouldn’t be allowed to exist.

  36. inkstain, the right of lawful assembly is guaranteed by the constitution. the right to sell me a boner pill by plastering it on a 80’sign outside my home, not so much.

  37. I’m not seeing the right to avoid advertising in there either.

    Regulating advertising is a legitimate function of government, but I’m not seeing a very compelling case being made as to why it should be done.

  38. Inkstain: “And the first place I look for it, generally, is in aggregations of advertisement.”

    Me too…in the phone book. Do you need a billboard to tell you where to find things to buy?

  39. “Me too…in the phone book. Do you need a billboard to tell you where to find things to buy?”

    No. But the thread of discussion had gone to eliminating all advertisements at that point. That would presumably include phone books.

  40. @Antinous

    “Advertising exists to sell you things that you don’t need. Protests exist to get you stuff that you do need.”

    So advertising done by, say, the Red Cross, the AHA, the Cancer Society (etc.) are all advertising things that we “dont’t need”?

    As someone who studied advertising, I can say that I hate billboards when they are done improperly. Unfortunatly, so many billboards are, to be frank, crap. That being said, there are billboards that are interesting, funny, and generally make you stop and smile a bit.

    Personally, I am all for getting rid of the ugly, tacky piece of crap on the side of the highway, creating much nicer billboards that don’t offend the senses AND help clients to get their name out there. Sadly, there is no way a litmus test for something like that could exist…

  41. Inkstain: the only benefit to society from advertisements is to the extent they inform consumers. Claims like “5 Year Guaruntee” help us buy quality products, which rewards good businesses.

    Advertising which misleads consumers can end up rewarding businesses who behave in unproductive and dishonest ways.

    Regulation does a poor job of keeping advertising honest. Technology has allowed us to spread ideas easily. We don’t need advertising to find products any more. When advertising funds things we want, like cable TV, that can be acceptable while a billboard might not be.

    Also, a protest and a billboard are not the same thing, and can we differentiate the two. Same with a billboard and a shop sign. Laws against one do not by necessity or reason have to affect the other.

  42. I can agree with everything you said there. But I’m still not quite getting the leap to why we need to ban billboards.

  43. Regulation does a poor job of keeping advertising honest. Technology has allowed us to spread ideas easily. We don’t need advertising to find products any more.

    You can say exactly the same thing about protests. While maybe Ozzie & Harriet needed protests to inform them about the existence of opposition to segregation & land wars in Asia, there are plenty of Internet blogs that deal with current political topics for those who are interested.

    Also, a protest and a billboard are not the same thing, and can we differentiate the two

    They both have exactly the same goal: to attract the attention of people who may not care about the message being imparted. Having lived in Washington, DC in an apartment complex near the Chinese Embassy, I have to say protests personally adversely affected my life far more than billboards ever have. The protesters never seemed to realize that chanting for hours not only annoyed their target of Chinese diplomats but everybody else in the neighborhood.

  44. I honestly was not making an attempted threadjack. Just trying to illustrate that not all offenses to people’s aesthetic sense should be regulated into oblivion.

  45. Billboards would have to be the most primitive form of advertising, which is an industry fossilizing before our eyes.

    People can get, and generally do get, [i]facts[/] about things before they buy these days, ya know from, like, the internet?

  46. Argue at the homeowners’ association meeting of your gated community that you want to ban any public messages that might infringe on your delicate field of view. Just don’t try to take it higher up than that, and do NOT try to pretend that you’re arguing for some “freedom” not to have to see anything you find aesthetically objectionable. Otherwise I might have to buy the house across the street from yours and set up those 15 thousand plastic flamingos.

    Oh, and it is true that billboards are different from protests. No billboard has prevented me from getting to work.

  47. I don’t claim to speak for the entire anti-billboard community, but I wanted to offer a couple of points. For me, its not about hating ads. Ads can be clever, beautiful, informative, funny. Many billboards advertise non-profit organizations or serve to promote awareness of issues. In my neighborhood, there are billboards on autism, sexual abuse and obesity. So, it isn’t just about the content or composition of the advertisement. For me, that is rarely the issue. What I do have an issue with is the structure itself. The towering metal monstrosities that hover over our city streets. Where I live a poorly placed billboard obscures the city skyline along a major thoroughfare into town. So, the property owner profits from the billboard, but everybody else loses what could be a spectacular view. If there is one thing that ranckles me more than any other, it is the idea that a property owner would do something, though well within written law, that goes against common consideration. Learning to live together in society ought to mean more than exerting one’s every right. Wouldn’t it be nice if we moved beyond the teenage bravado of look-what-I-can-do-and-you-can’t-stop-me and began to develop a sense of shared sense of community?

  48. I admit, I like open space. Sky, ocean, wetland. It’s one of the things that the west side of LA used to have a lot of. Now you drive down [name a street] and see dozens of overlapping buzzing flickering hyper images selling me things that I do not need/want. And the building wrappers! But that’s just my opinion. It’s depressing, like living inside Blade Runner.

  49. I think what the author is getting at by bringing up the difference between an advertising medium and “isolated advertising” is the same concept discussed (more recently) in Jonathan Mendez’s Search Becomes the Display Operating System piece:

    That mindset helps because search is more than a channel. Search is the way people use the web. People don’t just fire up a browser without a goal in mind. We are all taking actions on the web based on our goal. Information we notice and content we experience along our goal path may change our goals, but it does not change the two basic natures of how we use the web – recovery and discovery.

    Therein lies the key functional distinction between display and search. Search (as an app on the platform) is weaved into the web and the way we use it. Display is not. Display is layered on top of the web. This is why despite twelve years and countless millions of investment it has never performed. Frankly, it was doomed from the get-go. It never was a web service but rather built to be its own parallel platform (ehem, “Platform A”). The problem inherent with that is the medium is itself a platform. Ads will never control this medium. Here the medium (users) should control the ads.

    And as for the ownership of visual space and attention that seems to be at issue in this discussion, it is probably going to come down to whether or not you subscribe to the viewpoint that we as individuals do “own” our own attention (& accordingly a part of the profits which are derived from the passive collection of web-surfing, click-tracking & etc.) as proposed by groups such as the (now defunct?) Attention Trust, although admittedly, retroactively stretching that concept backwards in time to encompass non-interactive display mechanisms like billboards is more than a little wonky. Still, I really enjoyed the whole piece on a conceptual level.

    It’s also interesting to note that Gossage continuously refers to the advertising industry as “The Sign Painters” which is a fun reference for any World of Goo players out there…

  50. “The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.” – banksy

  51. More Banksy (from the book Cut It Out):

    Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

  52. I dont mind the use of billboard advertising as a means of trying to sell products and services. They stand out and capture attention. This is the idea of the billboard, to stand out and make it annoyingly obvious so that we do have to actually read it. Paper advertisements dont capture me in this way, and I see them as more annoying, in the sense we get bombarded with it in our letter box more than once a day, and the fact it wastes paper, and destroys trees, and a majority of it you never read so it lands in the rubbish.

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