Advertising is an attempt to direct the attention of people to a particular product, service, or need. It is done through a variety of methods including word of mouth, television, radio, the internet, billboards, newspapers, magazines, flyers, or even through the products themselves. Currently advertising is so pervasive that there are very few instances in which complete avoidance is possible. People are inundated with advertisements when inside, outside, on vacation, reading, exercising, and even when eating. Some advertisements use very sophisticated and expensive technology, such as animation, movie screen size billboards, or writing on eggs with a laser. Others are simple; Kentucky Fried Chicken might pay someone to dress as a chicken and walk around the neighborhood, or a gathering of people might all lie down in a parking lot to raise awareness to the human toll of tobacco. Today’s culture has made advertising in and of itself a business separate of the actual product. For this reason, the people or businesses that promote the idea of advertising are welcomed into the current model of business operations. However, the advertising business views certain elements of society as an impediment to their business strategy. The movement to create a more simplistic lifestyle by decreasing consumerism is often denied access to the same mode of advertising that other businesses might enjoy.

The Montana Department of Transportation has available on its website the Outdoor Advertising Control, Rules & Regulations.1 This is a 214 page document listing all of the laws pertinent to obtaining the right to advertise, along with the legalities concerning the advertisements. Some examples of these laws include:

  • Outdoor advertising (with exceptions) may not be erected within 660 ft. of the edge of the right-of-way of an interstate or primary system.
  • Any outdoor advertising is unlawful when a permit has not been obtained and the fee not paid.
  • Outdoor advertisements are restricted by their size, proximity to other signs, and their illumination - moving lights are prohibited except for on those signs providing public service information, such as the weather, temperature, or road conditions.

These laws can be found through the city’s or state’s website, or by contacting the relevant (Montana) Department of Transportation. Because of the manner in which these laws are disseminated many people are not aware of the quantity or contents of these laws. Most individuals or businesses don’t become aware of these laws until they have a need or desire to begin advertising, or until they have already broken the law and are informed of it after-the-fact. If the law is broken a fine is levied against the person or business at fault.

For small business owners and small organizations that wish to advertise, the plethora of rules can be quite burdensome. The ideas that these people come up with might have to be adjusted, or even abandoned, if they don’t conform to the laws. Because the laws are considerably difficult or time consuming to change, what is often changed is the idea itself. The laws tend to stifle creativity. The time that is required to find, read, and understand these laws can be devastating for the business or organization. If the matter of time is circumvented by employing an expert, the issue that then arises is that of increased expenditures, which often times is not feasible. Big corporations or large organizations are also affected, but in slightly different ways. Creativity might not be such an issue, because with increased size often comes a larger budget. This means that quantity (more signs) will trump quality (creative signs). In addition the larger budget would allow the employment of an advertising expert. This might not directly impact the company all that much, but the impact would definitely be felt by the consumer who would most likely be paying a higher price for the product because of the costs associated with its advertising. For those who use advertising, the laws regulating it can be very stressful. These laws are complex and high in number and, as a result, many citizens, businesses, and organizations are less inclined to advertise, especially if their goal is not one that would eventually lead to an influx in money. Good intentions are thwarted and relegated to less visible means of getting the message out.

Simplification of these laws would be one way that their burdensome could be reduced. Perhaps all outdoor advertising could be banned, with the exception of public service information such as the weather, road conditions, Amber alerts, and directions to the hospital, college, and airport. An example of this is in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where a city ordinance was passed to accomplish just this. This was done in an attempt to clean up the “mental environment”. Businesses and organizations haven’t suffered due to this ordinance and now everyone wishing to advertise is on equal footing. Advertising is still allowed “internally.” This has made the other avenues of advertising more valuable. Radio, T.V., and print are being used more creatively and efficiently. Another alternative could be a restructuring of the institutions goals. Advertising on such a grand scale as that which these laws regulate, is an attempt to reach as many people as possible. No close ties or relationships are formed. So if businesses relied more on word of mouth, and excellent customer service to a smaller number of people the stress of advertising would no longer exist. In addition the sense of community among the people would grow. Perhaps a less drastic approach to the burdens of these laws might be to give an upper hand to local small businesses and organizations. Make it illegal for multi-state or global businesses to advertise within the city or state. Those at the local level could still stock their products or promote their ideas, but any advertising would be solely for the local company, charity, school, or industry.

Originally posted Spring 2008

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