Where the Coppertone Girl and Carl Lewis Roam
S.F. isn't what you'd think of as billboard country. That designation would seem to belong more to the glitzy, like Vegas, or the gritsy and redneck, say Atlanta. But billboards have a long history in the Bay Area, with one local company going back a century, and S.F. is home to a shrine of sorts for devotees of the genre.

Billboards are the rawest mass medium -- they can't be turned off or tuned out. But they're consumed quickly. Designers figure they have an average of three seconds to get their pitch across. Because billboards assault the eye, when they don't work, they're shrill and tasteless (hence, the phrase "billboard blight"); but when they do, they make for advertising iconhood, like the Coppertone Girl or Carl Lewis bounding out of the frame for Nike.

Billboards can never escape their coming of age in the post-World War II, highway-laced sprawl of the suburban United States. They touted all the prime products of that age and helped establish many of the major consumer brands still on the market today: Nabisco, Ford, Palmolive, Ivory, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, to name a few.

By the '60s, however, billboards' image had started to slip. In the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, they had been singled out for specific restrictions. And television had slowly eviscerated their impact.

But billboards never disappeared completely. And through it all, S.F.'s contribution to billboard legend stood tall, in the form of the Skyway, a parade of dozens of boards running alongside I-80 from the Bay Bridge to Highway 101. (Boards there fetch from $10,000 to $20,000 a month.) For aficionados the corridor ranks right up there with the Vegas strip, Sunset Boulevard, and Times Square.

Today, billboards are enjoying something of a resurgence in the popular imagination. "Advertisers have gone back to outdoor since the '90s began," says Stephen Freitas, national marketing head for Eller Media. He spoke last week from the company's Phoenix headquarters. Northern California, with S.F. at its hub, is "probably the most dynamic outdoor market in the nation," he says. This region "has an appeal to the outdoor advertiser because of the product mix and the geography."

Eller, with local offices in the Berkeley flats, dates back nearly 100 years and is the largest billboard purveyor in Northern California, ahead of its only other big operator, Outdoor Systems, which works out of Oakland. The latter is the leading outdoor company in the country. Both have supplemented their billboard inventory through aggressive pursuit of transit ads and "street furniture" work, the "product mix" Freitas referred to.

The geography here is conducive because "[y]ou've got the bay right in the middle," Freitas says, so that people spend a great deal of time driving around it in predictable, easy-to-measure patterns. And the mild climate is physically forgiving to billboard materials.

Billboards are a venerable art form. Industry lore dates them back to the Pharaohs (obelisks have been found with hieroglyphic inscriptions that are the equivalent of "Eat at Joe's"). Starting in the early years of this century, cars and billboards grew up together. Henry Ford is said to have personally written the copy for the first billboard touting his products. What better place to reach drivers?

A survey of the Skyway last week showed that car ads still dominate the medium. In a nod to the Skyway's lofty stature in the industry, Absolut vodka has placed one of its rare and costly painted bottles there. It's a Kenny Scharf composition (that looks surprisingly wan), adorned with a whimsical spray of old-fashioned, wind-driven sequins bubbling out the neck.

The Absolut billboard harks back to the medium's early years, when advertisers commissioned fine artists to create evocative brand images. That's how Coca-Cola got its Santa Claus, and its girl on the beach, reaching for the real thing. And how Proctor & Gamble came up with its first fresh-faced virginal women for Ivory soap.

Although billboard companies rarely employ painters as famous as Scharf, most billboard production still involves artists applying images to a surface. Eller and Outdoor Systems have enough work to keep four or five employed full time.

Last week, Sean Robertson, Outdoor Systems' creative director, showed off the company's studios in the Berkeley flatlands next to the freeway. The ceiling rises a couple of stories above a floor about as big as two tennis courts. Huge vinyl sheets hang suspended on racks. As many as 10 or 15 billboards are being created here at any given time.

The most significant innovation in billboard manufacture was the development of affordable vinyl sheeting about 10 years ago. The initial outlay is much higher than the traditional paper, Robertson explains, but vinyl can be reused. The only limitation to how many times it can be repainted is the weight it acquires from repeat applications.

(This has nothing to do with why so many billboards are hanging in strips of late. That defect, called "flagging" in the industry, is due to the recent heavy rains. Boards here are particularly affected because California environmental rules require the use of water-soluble adhesives.)

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