A Show on the Road

New digital collection documents the history of outdoor advertising
October 1, 2011
Cultural touchstone

Cultural touchstone: A 1987 billboard for Sprite featured actor Jim Varney as Ernest P. Worrell, the country rube character popularized in commercials, television shows, and movies. John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History

Like them or not, billboards are part of the American landscape. They tell us where to fill up on gas, stay the night, and locate the best pecan logs. Sure, they clutter up the view and distract us with their corny pleas. But they also provide a fascinating window on American popular culture.

In that spirit, Duke Libraries has digitized more than 27,000 images of billboards and other outdoor advertisements as part of a new digital collection called ROAD 2.0. Designed to augment the libraries’ Resource of Outdoor Advertising Descriptions (ROAD) database, released in 2005, the collection includes photographs of billboards, wall paintings, bus shelters, taxi displays, and electric ads such as the neon signs in New York’s Times Square. The images, most taken between the 1930s and 1980s, are drawn from the vast archives of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Marketing & Advertising History, part of Duke’s Special Collections Library. (In fact, these 27,000 files represent just one-quarter of the Hartman Center’s collection.)

While the collection primarily will aid scholars of advertising history and consumer trends, they make for a fascinating tour through roadside America. One billboard, posted in the early 1970s by the First National Bank of Arizona, depicts two hippies raising their fingers in peace signs. Next to them are the words: “Love…try some on your parents.” One can only guess at the bank’s motives for investing in the advertisement.