Billboards, also known as hoardings in the UK, are large advertisements mainly targeting the drivers, but they are also meant for pedestrians. The billboards are usually located on main highways and they are highly visible advertisements, comprising of short and witty slogans and visuals in bold and attractive colors. There are many different types of billboards including hand painted, digital, atheist, shockvertising, multipurpose, and scented billboards. The atheist, also known as non-theist, billboards target the freethinkers or the segment of consumers who do not believe in the presence of a god. The content of such advertisements usually encourages the atheists and in turn win their favor. Initially the billboards were hand-painted; they were then replaced by digital billboards with the advancement in technology. The multipurpose billboards simultaneously serve as public lighting, electronic antenna, and as an advertising bulletin.
1. Benetton Group S.P.A.
Benetton Group S.P.A. is an international fashion brand, headquartered in Treviso, Italy, and with a network of more than 6,500 stores in 1120 countries. The stores generate collectively more than two billion euros yearly. Even more than their brands, the group is known for its shocking billboards, of which many are highly controversial. In 1991 one of their billboards depicted an unwashed newborn with umbilical cord still attached. The British Advertising Standard Authority received more than eight hundred complaints against this ad. This billboard advertisement was recorded in the Guinness World Records 2000 as the Most Controversial Campaign. The company appreciated the photographer Oliviero Toscani for producing shocking images like a dying AIDS patient, an inmate on death row, a black woman breastfeeding a white infant, a black stallion covering a white mare, human body limbs with HIV Positive tattoos and many other similar billboards.
2. Calvin Klein Inc
Calvin Klein Inc. is the well-known fashion house founded by the fashion designer Calvin Klein. It is headquartered in Midtown, Manhattan, New York City. The early advertisements became controversial due to employing extremely young models and scanty apparel, and at times due to use of improper slogans. One jean commercial was banned for saying ‘Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing!’ Sometimes fake e-mail addresses of the teenage models were given on the billboards and the readers were given the feeling of establishing some connection with the models through intermittent fake emails. This mode of advertising was discontinued in 2002. In the 1990s many Calvin Klein ads became controversial as they were considered too sexual and provocative, falling into the category of soft porn. In 1990 the Kiddie Underwear ad campaign had to be withdrawn on the same account.
3. Get Unhooked
Advertisements to promote smoking have always been discouraged at all levels but there are also some anti-smoking billboards which became controversial. One such advertisement targeting teenagers shows the lips hooked with fishing hooks. Known as Get Unhooked, the anti-smoking campaign has been banned by the British Government for creating ‘fear and distress’ in children. This advertisement caused severe reactions and hundreds of people, finding it offensive and disturbing, complained against it.
4. French Connection United Kingdom, fcuk
It is not only the shocking images that made many billboards controversial, but the words also have at times made some advertisements quite controversial. A well known example is the French Connection United Kingdom acronym fcuk, which is usually written in lower case. The French Connection U.K. has been a very successful branding business since its inception in 1970. Since the acronym sounds quite offensive, closely resembling an obscene English word, it caused a controversy. The company however exploited the controversy in its favor, by producing an extraordinarily popular line of T-Shirts. Messages that appeared on these T-shirts included too busy to fcuk, fcuk fashion, fcuk safely and hot as fcuk.
5. Robbins Diamonds
Hand language is interpreted differently in different cultures, sometimes causing confusion. The thumbs-up sign, for example, has different connotations in the eastern and the western world. Robbins Diamonds is the name of a jeweler known for its rings. One of its billboards has been a matter of controversy. In the foreground, the billboard shows a well focused ring finger pointing upwards while all the rest of the fingers form the fist. At the first glance it looks rude but a follow up changes the opinion. The girl, who is raising the finger, gives an innocent look. She looks to be alone and waiting for her boyfriend. The billboard reads ‘She’s Tired of Waiting’. The girl, Carla Fernandez, is not a professional model but an employee of the jewelers. She commented ‘All women I feel at one point in their life are going to want that question and when they get tired of waiting, those fingers are going to fly up.’
6. Atheist Bus Campaign
The Atheist Bus Campaign was created by the comedy writer Ariane Sherine. Supported by the British Humanist Association, it was launched on October 21, 2008. Originally it was intended to raise £5,500 in order to run thirty buses across London for four weeks with the slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. Surprisingly the campaign raised £48,000 by the end of the very first day. Although the campaign was quite successful from the atheist organizers’ point of view, it has been obviously quite disturbing for the religious people. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, remarked ‘the campaign lacked both judgement and a sense of reality.’
7. Endangered Species
Georgia Right to Life has sponsored the anti-abortion billboards which have been considered inappropriate by some, while they are considered just the right message for the purpose by others. The controversial message displayed on the billboards was ‘Black children are an “endangered species.”‘ According to the Center for Disease Control, black women accounted for most of the abortions in Georgia state, although they constitute only one third of the Georgia population. Gy-Shetfall, who teaches at a historically black women’s college, remarked ‘To use racist arguments to try to bait black people to get them to be anti-abortion is just disgusting’. On the other hand Cherl Sullener, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue, commented about the billboard campaign ‘I think it’s necessary. Abortion in the black community is at epidemic proportions. ‘¦ If it shocks people … it should be shocking.”
8. Be an Angel for Animals
PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has one objective and it is to attract attention, by whatever means they can. They do not shun the use of extremely shocking images or news for the purpose. Being non-profit activists, they do not care for how much anger they get from different segments of society. Many of their billboards are seen with anger by people all over the world. They employ celebrities to pose nude for their advertisements. One of their billboards with Pamela Anderson, posing nude with crucifix and bearing the message ‘Be an Angel for Animals’, has outraged the Catholic Church. Being sexist, it has been banned in Montreal.
Funeral homes are supposed to help the grief-stricken family perform the after-death rituals. It is a weird business but it fulfills the requirements of two parties for their mutual benefit. How callous it is if a funeral home invites people to die, in the interest of their business! Bergemann & Son Funeral Services have posted a billboard in the Berlin subway, just across the rails, with the message ‘Come a little closer’. It is unimaginable that someone can be so mean.
10. Turn in your arms
A billboard apparently sending a pro-gun control message became controversial primarily on account of the racial discrimination. The billboard shows three Native Americans with the message ‘Turn in your arms. The government will take care of you.’ Though the gun control policy has been debatable for a long time, what is more controversial in this billboard is the exclusive images of the Native Americans, which some people have found offensive. A resident of Greenley, Kerri Salazar, who is of Native American descent, said she did not have a problem with the apparently pro-guns rights message, but she was offended because the Native Americans were singled out.
There are different types of advertising billboards including digital, neon sign, and truckside billboards. Industry has switched over from hand-painted or paper poster billboards to flexible materials like PVC, vinyl, or eco plastic polythene. It is an image, language, or message that can make a billboard controversial, and the billboards showing shocking advertisements have been the most controversial.