I took a little trip down I-75 to Florida last week, giving me the opportunity to reflect on the tackiness, ugliness and downright tawdriness of the billboards lining both sides of the highway. If there were ever a candidate for highway beautification, it would be this despoiled corridor, especially the stretches around Valdosta, Perry and much of Florida.
Fast food restaurants and motels vie for attention with Disney-related industries and bags of citrus for $1. Strippers and adult super X stores seem to abound on every exit, apparently located right next to the offices of dozens of angry, trigger-happy lawyers promising to save victims from tragedy by suing the pants off every dastardly person in America.
When it came to offering salvation, the church was clearly not to be outdone by the lawyers and strippers. Christianity has always had a strong penchant, even a mandate, to share the good news in any conceivable fashion, including billboards. The round trip to Florida led me to conclude that at least some Christians will stop at nothing to get their message across.
I only spotted one billboard with what I would call a “soft” message of invitation. This sign, pointing out that “America Needs a Faith Lift,” was drowned out by myriad Christian billboards with an edgy threat of hell or a promise that Jesus was returning very soon. One sign simply depicted in large fiery letters the word “OBEY” with a Bible verse beneath it. One asked, “Hell: Have you thought about it lately?” There were so many “we’re going to frighten you into salvation” billboards that I mistook a flaming message from the Florida Forestry Commission with another Christian-themed warning.
More than one religious billboard promised that Jesus was returning soon, linking the message to its website. Another sign targeted those who were “lonely, depressed and confused” (the billboards were tilting me in that direction) by promising that Jesus is Still the Answer. One cutesy placard announced that B-I-B-L-E stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
I must tip my hat to these anonymous, earnest groups who spend their money to get out the message, but I wonder why they designed billboards as tacky as those of their competitors. Is the first rule of outdoor advertising “Make it as ugly as possible to capture attention?” Three different billboards decrying the tragedy of abortion used this approach, too, one of them featuring a sperm swimming towards an egg.
Eventually my wife, tiring of hearing me groan about terrible theology and simplistic evangelism asked, “If you could erect your own faith billboard to attract a motorist’s attention, what would it look like?” It was a well-timed question that put the onus back on me, stopped my griping and led us to an interesting discussion for quite a few miles, during which I almost overlooked the hideous messages ruining the beautiful Florida and South Georgia landscape.
What would your billboard say or depict?
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.