Saturday, May 29, 2010

When Bad Billboards Get Worse

For a lot of years now, I have been driving the highways and byways of Nashville and I thought I had seen it all when it came to billboard advertising. I have seen the good — usually a national account like Coke or Pepsi or Verizon or some such — and the bad, the most outstanding of which was a billboard for a flavored vodka that was totally unreadable. This is the story of that billboard and its progeny. This is a story Stephen King would be hard-pressed to come up with.

This billboard for Country Club Vodka had a shot of each of the vodka labels, each of which had a different highly-stylized font, lined up next to each other. The result was an unreadable hodge-podge of shape and color. A veritable cornucopia of visual cacophony that literally assaulted the senses. I would find myself staring at this mess for extended periods of time, even though I was driving 55 – 60mph through a maze of roadway where three different interstates converge. It’s a wonder I didn’t cause an accident. “But, Your Honor, I was blinded by the most blatantly bungled billboard in the history of billboards,” I could have argued. I doubt, however, it would have done me any good. And, unfortunately, the billboard was like a train wreck; even though I knew I was about to pass it and began chanting “don’t look don’t look don’t look” mantra-style at least three miles before reaching the offensive advertisement, I still drove by with my attention transfixed on that monstrosity. It called to me like ‘It’ called the little children into its ghastly clutches.

Well, I thought that was the worst of the worst, the epitome of poorly executed advertising, the Heaven’s Gate of the billboard world. I finally learned to drive a different way so its siren call didn’t affect me any more. I thought I was safe from the clutches of the 40 foot unreadable flavored vodka labels.

I was wrong.

Over the past three years, Country Club Vodka has had a campaign with the tag line, ‘Plays Well With Others’. OK. Fine. I can live with that. They are trying to sell fruit-flavored vodkas, so the line fits. Kinda sorta. Good, cheap vodka with the crisp, clean blending of apple, cherry, lemon, lime. Ummm Buddy!

But visually, here came another assault on the sensabilities. There were three billboards that cycled through those three years, each of which featured (for the most part) four people from different walks of life with fruit in their mouths as if they were mouth guards. There was a big, burly biker with a fruit wedge for teeth. There was a skinny lady of indiscriminate age. Heck, there was even a bulldog. Yep. A bulldog. With cherries hanging from its maw. I think vodka is toxic to animals, isn’t it? Then there’s the little old lady with cherries on a stem clenched between her teeth gazing longingly at the young man next to her. The woman was probably in her late 50s/early 60s. Maybe older. The young man was in his mid-20s. The lady was the ultimate cougar. But a cougar with her viginity, because, subliminally, isn’t that what’s being said? Old lady with cherries staring lovingly at an unsuspecting young man? Hmmmm. Of course, I’m not sure the people who put these ads together would have any idea about subliminal messages as ‘sophisticated’ as that.

I thought those were bad enough. And, for a very short time, the billboards seemed to have disappeared. With a sigh of relief, I hoped they had run their course.

I was wrong.

Out comes Billboard #4 in the series. This time, three people — a bride with an apple in her mouth, an 80s Freddy Mercury/Tony Orlando/Village People guy with a handlebar mustache and cherries hanging from his teeth, and a heavy-set woman with an orange slice firmly planted in her mouth. At first glance, they look like illustrations. As you gaze longer into the horror that is this billboard, you see these could actually be photographs.

Of real people.

Think I’m overstating things? Well, here it is in all its ignominious lack of glory.

The assault continues! My poor, long-suffering eyes now have an all-new group of fruit-sucking strangers to stare at.

How can anyone think this sells product of any kind? And, subliminally, what’s the message being conveyed by the woman on the right? Is there a spit hidden somewhere out of our line of vision? Is that hidden spit causing that almost orgasmic look on her face? (The whole spit thing is probably going to come across as cruel and completely politically incorrect, but isn’t it incorrect to put a person into such a position where it can be construed that way?) I’m sure it can be argued that having a sip of this low-cost vodka is the next best thing to sex. Or maybe it’s better. Looking at her…….who knows.

It can also be argued that no publicity is bad publicity and that my even bringing this up is validating this layout and helping to sell this product.

I don’t think so.

I know there have got to be samples of really, really bad outdoor advertising in your market. Let’s start sharing so that maybe, some day, poorly planned and executed advertisements will be long gone from our society.

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