Billboards have had a long and sometimes controversial place in Indianapolis history and are in the news again as billboard companies lobby for a proposal to lift a decade-long ban on new and digital billboards. Residents will have an opportunity to express opinions before city officials vote on the proposal.
The first outdoor advertising in Indianapolis consisted of hand-painted signs or handbills pasted onto the sides of buildings and fences. Color lithography and large-format posters first created for circus advertising in the 1830s paved the way for billboards. The earliest-known recorded leasing of billboard space dates to the 1860s and in 1872 the International Bill Posters’ Association of North America was formed. Indiana had one of the earliest statewide bill posters’ organizations. By 1900 billboard companies established a standardized format that led to national campaigns with mass-produced billboards from large companies such as Coca-Cola, Palmolive, and Kelloggs. With the speed of the automobile age and less time to capture viewers’ attention, designs changed from text-heavy signs to strong graphics with larger lettering. Billboards were now common along highways and roads, as well as in cities and small towns.
With no regulations in Indianapolis, billboards began to dominate streets and buildings and concerned civic groups proposed restrictions in the early 1900s. In 1901 the local Cigar Makers’ Union lobbied the Common Council of the City of Indianapolis to limit the size and types of advertisements, but this was a ploy to stop ads by non-union cigar companies. Heated discussions erupted between the Cigar Makers’ Union and the Bill Posters’ Union, claiming they could not make a living with these limitations. The issue made the news again on October 18, 1903 when an editorial in the Indianapolis Journal promoted the removal of signs that littered the city. Extolling the many new buildings, bridges, and city parks, the writer lamented:
Yet private greed, combined with public carelessness, continues to give the city more and more an ill-kept look. Around the monument stand a number of ‘dinkey’ trash boxes advertising certain brands of whisky and cures for bunions. In the vicinity of the Capitol are flaming billboards and a lot of old buildings covered with dreadful color schemes, put together not for the particular purpose of driving people crazy, but for advertising purposes. … The best streets are disfigured at many points with glaring billboards, and the avenues leading to both the large parks are the most unsightly things that could be imagined. Both Massachusetts and Indiana avenues are nightmares, and there are other streets not far behind them. … It is the age of advertising, but the spirit is running wild and overriding everything. Business houses in the dignified wholesale district are plastered over with the most horrible examples of the sign painter’s handiwork, and the omnipresent billboard, not content with staring from the street level, has acquiring [sic] the habit of mounting the tops of buildings to offend the sight. All this makes the city look cheap and tawdry, despite all that has been or can be done in the erection of beautiful buildings and the improvement of streets.
The Commercial Club took up the challenge in late November 1903 and discussed restricting billboard size and setback (the other hot topic of this group: a regulation against spitting on sidewalks). Committee members agreed to meet with billboard companies to get input and consensus. On April 18, 1905, the council amended an ordinance, stating: “It shall be unlawful to erect or maintain any solid sign, billboard, or other structure for advertising purposes greater than two feet in height; nor shall any windows or doors be obstructed, or the opening thereof interfered with, by any sign, billboard or other advertising structure.” The key word here was “solid” sign, since the ordinance continues “it will be permissible to erect and maintain skeleton signs upon the cornice of, or on the roof of any building in the city of Indianapolis when constructed according to the requirements of the city building ordinance.”
Although a complete history of city billboard ordinances is unavailable, older photographs of downtown Indianapolis indicate few early restrictions. National campaigns such as the City Beautiful Movement in the 1910s and ’20s and the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 (sparked by Lady Bird Johnson) did much to limit billboard blight. The Indiana Supreme Court settled a case in 1930 between the General Outdoor Advertising Company and the State of Indiana, concluding that while billboards could not be prohibited along a boulevard merely because they were unsightly, a regulation prohibiting a sign within 500 feet of any park, parkway, or boulvard was valid (even if they were of safe and sound construction and not a nuisance per se). The State of Indiana and the US Federal Highway Administration struck an agreement to control outdoor advertising along freeways in 1971. However the New York Times reported in 2007:
…loopholes have allowed the construction of many more billboards now than were present when President Johnson signed the bill into law; today there are more than 450,000 along major highways. Four [now five] states have banned billboards entirely, but most of America has seen the proliferation of far larger signs than in the past — 1,200-square-foot behemoths that loom over the landscape atop 40-foot poles and which can be seen from miles away. The new trend is to turn them into huge digitalized screens that can be programmed to flash a dozen ads in the driver’s face as he passes by.
Currently, digital billboards are under consideration by the city of Indianapolis, lifting the ban on new static billboards and digital billboards put in place a decade ago by Mayor Bart Peterson’s administration. According to WTHR, proposal 2014-250, written by lobbyists representing Lamar Companies and Outdoor Media LLC, “would allow static digital billboards where traditional ones already exist, but on a two-to-one conversion, meaning the company could convert one billboard, but would have to take another one down.” This would mean fewer billboards, but for the first time it allows the digital billboards–as many as 65 within three years–on corridors within the beltway such as New York, Michigan, 10th, and Washington Streets, as well as along interstates. Read the draft ordinance for full details such as size, spacing, and setbacks from residential districts.
Supporters believe that this would be good for the city by reducing the number of billboards, providing affordable advertising for small businesses, and presenting a form of public communication, such as Amber Alerts. Not to mention that it would be very lucrative for the three or four billboard companies that would have a monopoly on the digital signs. Opposition, some who fought for the ban in 2003, includes several neighborhood associations such as Midtown Indianapolis (an umbrella group representing Mapleton-Fall Creek, Broad Ripple, Meridian-Kessler and others), the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations (McANA), and Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis (known as HUNI, a coalition of 22 older neighborhoods). Concerns include the proposal’s source (billboard lobbyists), traffic safety with signs that change every eight to twelve seconds, the brightness of the lights, billboard blight (sometimes called the Las Vegas effect), and the view that billboards are tacky and detract from the community’s aesthetic character. Recently a City-County Council committee passed the billboard ordinance 5-2 and citizens were concerned that it appeared to be fast-tracked after Thanksgiving without much community input. However, a full council vote on Monday, December 1st has been delayed and the ordinance has been sent back to committee.
Five states have eliminated billboards entirely and hundreds of cities have banned or are limiting digital billboards. It comes down to public policy and how we want our city to look. What do you think?
Read more about the digital billboard ordinance (2014-250) and contact your city-county councilor to share your opinions:
Indianapolis Neighborhoods in Uproar Over Digital Billboards (WTHR, by Mary Milz)
Problems With the Digital Billboard Law (INforefront, by Pat Andrews)
Billboard Industry Has Purchased Indianapolis City-County Council (Advance Indiana)
Digital Billboards Would Bloom in Indy Under Council Proposal (Indianapolis Business Journal, by Kathleen McLaughlin)
Cultural Camouflage: Losing Sight of Urban Progress in the Lights of Digital Billboards (City Gallery Blog, by Andrew Christenberry)
Have an opinion? Share it with your Indianapolis City-County Councilor: http://www.indy.gov/egov/council/councillors/biography/pages/home.aspx
To oppose the billboard ordinance, please sign the petition
-University of Vermont, Landscape Change Program – Billboards
-Outdoor Advertising Association of America web page, “History of OOH,” (http://www.oaaa.org/outofhomeadvertising/historyofooh.aspx)
–Indianapolis Journal, “Disfiguring the City,” 18 October 1903, p. 4
–Indianapolis Journal, “Commercial Club Interested,” 25 November 1903, p. 12
–Revision of 1910: Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Indiana So Far as they Control the City of Indianapolis, 1910, p. 338
-Dennis Willms, “Municipal Corporations – Regulation of Billboards and Advertising Structures for Esthetic Purposes,” Marquette Law Review, 1952, v. 35, p. 365-369
-The New York Times, “Lady Bird’s Lost Legacy,” 20 July 2007