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The Billboard Problem

The Billboard Problem

February 27, 2013 by

On family road trips, I do the driving. And when I’m driving across the Texas prairie, I tend to notice the billboards. This is partly because there’s not much else to look at, but it’s mostly because billboards are terrible—they’re usually a sad combination of poor strategy, poor design and poor copy. As we roll down the interstate, I find my eye hopping from one ill-conceived rectangle to the next.

The modern American church’s affinity for billboards has been well documented here at Church Marketing Sucks and elsewhere because, let’s face it, we’ve produced our share of terrible signage. Last Christmas I encountered a billboard that underscores much of what is lacking in the way we attempt to communicate with the world around us. White letters against a black background offered these words:

Read the Bible

Follow Jesus Christ

Visible? Yes. Well-intentioned? I’m sure. Theologically unoffensive? Certainly. But that’s where the positives end.

Compelling? No. Substantive? No. Personal (or presented within the context of a relationship)? No. Story? No. Opportunity to dialog? No.

I think we like to use billboards (and other means of proselytization-on-the-go) for a few reasons:

  • Billboards have a cost that allow us to quantify our commitment to evangelism.
  • The cost, though tangible, isn’t prohibitive.
  • Composing six words of copy is easy.
  • Billboards allow us to consider our job done (the message has been delivered), and they put the onus on the heathen driver to respond.
  • Billboards aren’t digital or social, so we don’t have to be afraid of losing control of them.

A drive-by approach to communication may seem more apropos than ever in an ADD-riddled world, but the opposite is true. Relationship and context are as vital to meaningful communication as ever, and billboards abhor relationship and context.

I’ve singled out billboards, but consider the billboard’s closest relatives: church signs, bumper stickers and statement T-shirts. Those are some of contemporary Christianity’s favorite means of expression, right? We see them as the perfect little platforms for hit-and-run declarations of eternal significance. These media dictate a compressed message, an abridged gospel, and post it in the peripheral vision of vehicles and lives barreling down the highway. At best, this approach is inert. At worst, it’s counterproductive to our calling: to be witnesses in our neighborhoods and to the ends of the earth.

I’m convinced this calling requires more from us than what will fit on a billboard. If we’re to truly be witnesses, we’ve got stories to tell. If God created the world, if he sent his son to rescue us from sin, if we’ve been redeemed, if the Spirit indwells us and binds us together, then we have plenty of material from which to draw. Even better, we have a compelling story into which we can invite our neighbors—the story of God, who makes all things new.

Billboards have their place in this world. If you need to find an attorney for your speeding ticket, or if you’re wondering how far it is to the next McDonald’s, billboards provide an invaluable service. But if we’re to announce the kingdom of God, we can’t settle for a drive-by. Not when there’s an amazing story unfolding all around us.

Want to learn more about story? Check out Scott McClellan’s new book Tell Me a Story:

  • Buy a copy of Tell Me a Story: Finding God (and Ourselves) Through Narrative by Scott McClellan.
  • Read our review of Tell Me a Story: Finding God (and Ourselves) Through Narrative by Scott McClellan.
Photo by mediaboytodd
Post By:

Scott McClellan


Scott McClellan is the communications pastor at Irving Bible Church and the author of Tell Me a Story: Finding God (and Ourselves) Through Narrative. You can follow him on Twitter: @scottmcclellan.
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5 Responses to “The Billboard Problem”

  • Patrick
    February 27, 2013

    Scott – are you saying billboards should not be part of a church’s marketing strategy at all? We recently used a billboard as part of a multichannel campaign to bring people into church. It was one component that tied in and supported the others (video, social media, personal invites, postcards). The results were pretty good! (plus, clear channel must not have sold the next slot because our billboard stayed up for a couple more weeks than we were told!).


    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      February 27, 2013

      I think it comes down to your approach. If you’re using a billboard with a drive-by approach (Follow Jesus!), it’s not going to get anywhere. But if it’s compelling, substantive, personal, tells a story or opens opportunity for dialog (which it sounds like you did), then you might have something.


    • Scott McClellan
      February 27, 2013

      Patrick,

      It sounds like you guys used billboards in the best possible way — as a part of a bigger campaign, pointing people to a story — and I fully support that. The challenge for us as communicators is to evaluate each available medium and platform on its own merits (strengths and weaknesses) and then leverage them (or abstain from them) accordingly.

      Keep up the great work!


  • Joe Wickman
    March 13, 2013

    Good call.
    I’d say without a defined and effective strategy, it’s just “spray and pray”.


  • Steve Kenow
    March 28, 2013

    It’s suprising how things seem to all converge, at times. I was just thinking about a similar phenomenon.

    I think this is more a mindset problem and not a media problem. There are billboards that work – they disrupt your normal train of thought and embed a memorable experience in your head. Steve Fogg wrote about billboards a few years back, and the essence of that post (http://www.churchmarketingsucks.com/2010/12/a-christmas-billboard-war-between-catholics-and-atheists/) is still true.

    Just do a search for ‘creative billboard ideas’ and then look through the images. You’ll see quite a few that make you smile or chuckle or even pause. The series of road signs Burma-Shave did still is one of the most effective use of billboards.

    The reasons you point out for the easy answer approach to evangelizing (billboards) are true of other media, too. How many websites have you seen that have this billboard mentality? More than I care to count.

    Every form of media can fail if you lack a clear purpose and strategy behind it.



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