A Brief History of Billboard Advertising and How It Works

POA - Blog_June 2023-01

Billboard advertising has long been an iconic and effective form of outdoor advertising, capturing the attention of motorists, pedestrians, and passersby for over 150 years! We’re all now familiar with these towering structures, strategically placed along highways, urban areas, and popular destinations. We also know how immensely powerful billboard advertisements have become in conveying messages, building brand awareness, and reaching a vast audience.

But how and when did billboards get their start? And how do they work today?

Let’s look at billboard advertising’s past and why it continues to be a prominent marketing tool even in the digital age.

A Brief History of Billboard Advertising

Outdoor advertising existed before the rise of the billboard industry. Local merchants created signs or posters and placed them on their buildings or fences to alert passersby what items they had for sale.

It wasn’t until the 1830s that the first billboards were created. Billboards were used throughout the 1800s and early 1900s to advertise traveling shows. (Think: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, carnivals, vaudeville).

Billboards have been on the rise ever since. Here are a few significant milestones in the growth of billboard advertising.


The very first billboard advertisements – posters over 50-square-feet – were created by Jared Bell in New York to advertise Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1835. Billboards in the early 1800s were labor-intensive to create, as most were drawn or painted by hand.


The first incidents of people leasing space for billboards were recorded.


The “twenty-four-sheet” billboard was introduced at the Paris Expo. These billboards were20 feet by 9 feet and consisted of (you guessed it) 24 sheets put together to create the large image. These became the standard format for billboards.


In 1905, the Model T was introduced, making automobiles affordable for the first time – and making Americans more mobile. There were an estimated 78K motor vehicles in the United States in 1905. By 1940, there were over 27 million!


President Eisenhower enacted the United States’ Interstate Highway System, which further accelerated American’s mobility. The Interstate Highway System created 49,000 miles of highways.
Printing Capabilities, Manufacturing Automation, & American Mobility Give Rise to the Billboard

As you can see, these technological innovations and infrastructure investments created a landscape where advertisers could get their messages in front of Americans on the go.

Our population, innovation, and mobility have grown significantly since the 1950s and so has the billboard advertising industry. There are now an estimated 350,000 billboards in the United States, and almost 10,000 of them are digital billboard displays.

Now that we know how billboards got their start, let’s talk about how billboards work.

Billboards Work Because of Their Strategic Placement

The success of billboard advertising lies in its strategic placement. Billboards are typically located in high-traffic areas, such as busy intersections, highways, major city streets, and near popular attractions. By choosing prime locations, advertisers can maximize their exposure to a diverse audience, including motorists, pedestrians, and commuters. These placements ensure that the message reaches a wide range of demographics, making billboards a powerful medium for brand promotion.

Eye-Catching Designs Make Billboard Advertising Work

People are moving by billboards fast, so they work because a brand captures their attention with big, eye-catching designs. Effective billboards utilize striking colors, large fonts, and compelling imagery to make an immediate impact. By leveraging creative and visually appealing designs, advertisers can effectively communicate their message and leave a lasting impression on viewers.

Billboards Work by Using Simple Messages

Billboard advertising demands simplicity in messaging. Due to the limited viewing time and distance from the audience, the content must be concise, clear, and memorable. A short, compelling slogan or a single captivating image can convey the essence of the message effectively. The objective is to pique the curiosity of viewers and create a desire to explore the advertised brand further. Successful billboards spark curiosity and encourage the target audience to seek out more information or engage with the brand through other channels.

Modern Billboards Work with Complementing Digital Strategies

In the era of digital marketing, billboards continue to play a significant role by complementing online advertising efforts. Many brands strategically align their billboard campaigns with their digital marketing strategies to create a seamless and integrated brand experience. For instance, billboards can feature website URLs, social media handles, or QR codes that direct viewers to online platforms, encouraging further engagement and enabling measurable results.

Billboards that are also digital (rather than printed, static images) can enhance these efforts, as well as further delight passersby. Digital billboards can be updated with new messages or data in seconds by updating a new image file and adding widgets that automatically provide real-time information. For example, digital billboards can be embedded with time and weather apps that display accurate, timely information.

How Far We’ve Come with Billboard Advertising

The history of billboard ads is an inspiring tale of American growth and innovation. It’s fascinating to consider how outdoor advertising grew from small signs used for local business promotion into the widespread use of mammoth billboards we know today.

From its rather humble beginnings, billboard advertising has exploded and continues to be a powerful advertising tool. Its ability to captivate audiences, generate brand awareness, and convey messages efficiently contributes to its enduring popularity. 
If you want to leverage this traditional yet highly-effective form of advertising to enhance your brand visibility, engage consumers, and drive business growth, give us a call. We’ll help you select the best location and design for your billboard advertising campaign.

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