How Billboards went from Being Images on Paper to Dispensers of Free Beer

The billboard was around long before the aeroplane and it’s a form of advertising that has permeated every part of the globe. It’s the largest canvas a brand has, allowing them to display their message with such prominence that it’s hard for people not to stare.

Taking over the physical landscape in a way that no other form of advertising ever has, or probably ever will, we take a look at the billboard’s life from its inception in the 1830s to the present day…

1830s – The Billboard is Born

The earliest billboard was in the form of local roadside advertising in the US. Businesses would paint signs on walls and glue posters to fences or walls. A local thing, a pharmacy, for example, would display a large poster nearby to let passers-by know what they were selling.

Early billboards were generally quite small but that all changed in 1835 New York when Jared Bell introduced the large format American poster. A game changer, the current billboard posters of the day paled in comparison to Bell’s 50 square foot head turner.


Ringling Bros And Barnum & Bailey (circus poster) – Other industries soon followed suit. Image from

1860s – An Industry is Established

By the late 1860s a whole new industry had been established and the earliest recorded lease of a billboard took place in 1867. By 1870, close to 300 bill posting and sign painting businesses were operating in the US.

1890s – Co-ordination and Control

The Associated Bill Posters’ Association of the US and Canada was formed in Chicago and, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, this was to “provide an expanded nationwide organisation for coordinating the services offered by member companies” as well as to deal with any “ethical concerns of early industry leaders”.
It was at this time that billboards became a part of the big league.

1900s – A Standard is Born

A standardised structure and size for billboards was introduced in 1990. The result? The billboard market exploded in a good way.

Big brands quickly jumped on board as they knew that the same ad could fit any billboard nationwide. Companies like Kellogg’s and Coca-Cola started mass-producing billboards as part of a national marketing effort and things have never been the same.

Coca-Cola Santa

Original Santa holiday ad “Thirst Asks For Nothing More”. Image from

2005 – Billboards go Digital

The next big change for billboards happened in 2005. By this point, most industries were going digital in some way, shape or form.

As so eloquently put it, the digital billboard introduced the ability to “provide timely, high-resolution advertising for multiple clients”. This enabled billboards to cement themselves as a relevant option at a time when marketing managers worldwide were flooded with highly engaging advertising options.


A Clear Channel digital billboard. Image from

2010 to the Present day – Moving Beyond the Screen

Whenever a new advertising technique/medium is unleashed into the world, it is met with a heightened sense of intrigue, interest and engagement from consumers. But as the new technique/medium becomes commonplace, consumers soon lose interest, become largely desensitised to it and engagement falls.

Over the last ten years, billboards have sought to reignite and maintain engagement and interest in a number of incredibly creative ways. They have moved beyond the two dimensional digital screen and in many cases, even beyond the traditional rectangle that the billboard had restricted itself to for decades.

Free beer Anyone?

If you happened to be near the Old Brewery Pub in London in April this year, you would’ve been greeted by a snaking queue of Londoners all waiting their turn to stand in front of a billboard.
This wasn’t just any billboard though. This was a Carlsberg billboard with a built in pump dispensing cool, fresh beer.
Their marketing message plainly stated “probably the best poster in the world”.


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If we look at the evolution of the billboard, we see that advertisers are constantly trying to make them more engaging and personal whilst trying to break them free of their two dimensional mass marketing reputation.

Interestingly, this puts exhibitions and trade shows in an even more special place in today’s crowded marketing landscape. The exhibition is one of the only ways in which a brand can form a deep, meaningful and lasting connection with their target market – something all advertising and marketing methods strive to achieve. And the exhibition achieves this effortlessly, through good old face-to-face interaction. Perhaps billboards can inspire us to do more with exhibition stands… watch this space.

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