Outdoor Advertising Is Winning Respect

By Stuart Elliott N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, November 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Outdoor Advertising Is Winning Respect


Stuart Elliott N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


That most evanescent of media, outdoor advertising, is attaining a kind of permanence. Museums, galleries and archives across the United States are beginning to pay attention to the history of billboards, signs, posters, bus and subway placards and even the carved figures that once stood outside stores.

A half-dozen exhibitions and displays devoted to outdoor and out- of-home advertising have been opened to the public in the last month. And more are on the way, including a retrospective at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams in 1999.

The growing interest in what had long been considered a prosaic form of selling "reflects a broader interest in commercial culture and popular culture as a whole," said Ellen Gartrell, director of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History at the Duke University Special Collections Library in Durham, N.C. "Whether we love it or hate it, we recognize outdoor advertising and respond to it," she added. At the end of the month, the Hartman Center plans to display on the Duke campus material from a massive collection -- 672 shelf feet -- donated last year by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. A display last month presented 60 years of billboards on a model highway set up in front of a campus library. Portions of the collection, comprising thousands of items dating back a century, can also be viewed on the Hartman Center's Web site (http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/hartman). "The history of outdoor advertising mirrors the history of America, showcasing significant social and commercial developments," said Nancy Fletcher, president and chief executive of the outdoor association in Washington. "The interest right now in outdoor exhibits has to do with the resurgence of the medium," she added, as evidenced by growth in areas like "special uses" -- an industry term for elaborate, oversized signs in places like Sunset Boulevard and Times Square. Indeed, the electrical extravaganzas known as spectaculars, which have bathed New Yorkers in a glitzy glow for decades, are the subject of a show that opened Wednesday at the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West at 77th Street in New York City. "Signs and Wonders: The Spectacular Lights of Times Square" is scheduled to run through March 8. "These signs are one of the aspects of New York that have become icons of the city," said Mary Beth Betts, curator of the show. Among the signs recreated in the show are a garish green Heinz pickle that promoted "57 good things for the table" and a complicated aquatic tableau centered on "spearmen" selling Wrigley's Spearmint gum. Other ads are evoked in photographs: the waterfalls that peddled Bond clothes and Pepsi-Cola, the acrobatics of the cartoon character Little Lulu for Kleenex tissues, the constantly puffing Camel cigarette smoker and the kitten playing with a spool of thread to demonstrate that Corticelli silk "does not knot. …

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