In the age of Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and good old-fashioned email, I’m still dumbfounded some days when my physical mailbox is chock full of classic junk mail.
A younger friend of mine has snarkily suggested that it’s because, ahem, I fit the age profile for direct marketers who use the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their pitches. And I confess that I receive a fair amount of come-ons from AARP. And from every organization I’ve ever given a red cent to. But a ton of it is still labeled Resident—so it’s not all about age demographics.
It must still work. Which sort of pleases me. I used to run a whole lot of direct mail campaigns back in the early 90s. Our market was geophysicists, astrophysicists, hydrologists—accomplished, intelligent, highly educated scientists. Our product was fairly pricey software (which, back then, still came in a shrink-wrapped box) and when we undertook direct mail, I had doubts.
But the excercise taught me a lot about human nature: Everybody wants a deal, or at least a perceived deal. Even these Ph.D.s responded to free T-shirts, and language like “don’t’ stop reading because you can save even more,” and time-limited offers.
I was thinking about all this on yesterday’s 2-1/2 hour drive from Milwaukee to Stevens, Point, Wisconsin, where Beth will be delivering the keynote address to a group of educators. The group Beth is addressing specializes in educating people who are blind or have visual impairments, and it’s their annual Wisconsin conclave. They are a terrific group of people.
Roadside Billboards along the Interstate are something Beth can remember clearly. But it’s hard to convey how visual life has changed since 1985. How to explain how everything is a kind of billboard or sign now? Buses are billboards. L cars are billboards. Flat screen TVs in elevators are billboards.
So, like junk mail, there’s something kind of quaint about conventional roadside billboards. At the start of our trip, we were on an Interstate, and there were the usual things about national fast food or hotel chains that were at an exit ahead. I didn’t pay much attention.
But when we got off the interstate, in the beautiful Wisconsin countryside, things changed. The billboards came in clusters and seemingly closer to the road. And they were all over the map in terms of subject matter. An anti-abortion group paid for one with a giant fetus and this caption: 40 million babies who won’t grow up to pay into Social Security.
Followed by an equally big pitch for an adult superstore featuring marital aids (wink, wink), adult videos, and an exotic smoke shop. (Don’t know what the latter is—maybe vaping?)
Followed by a billboard for a firearms store, which was followed by a billboard advertising a brand of hunting scopes.
That was enough, really, but this cycle repeated itself three times—either an anti-abortion or pro-Jesus sign, followed by a new sex superstore, followed by a different firearms vendor. Mixed in with billboards for hospitals, real estate agencies, and industrial suppliers.
Way back when, Lady Lady Bird Johnson led a campaign to beautify America. Her efforts help produce the Highway Beautification Act, which included restrictions on how big, how close to the road, and how frequently billboards could be placed near Federal Interstate highways and other roadways primarily funded by the feds. I’m guessing the billboard-arame we saw was on a state road—I’ll have to pay closer attention on the drive back.
Meantime, I’m left to conclude that folks that travel this part of Wisconsin detest abortion, love Jesus, love big porn shops, love hunting, and of course, guns.
God bless America.