Everywhere a Sign: Roadway Signage Explained

Whether on a road trip or the daily commute, we’re all constantly confronted with a barrage of signs. Some are vital (“Bridge Out”), but this article covers only those not-so-vital-yet-seem-to-be-everywhere signs.

Far and Away

Have you ever noticed that many billboards on American interstates seem to always be off in the distance, high atop a hill, instead of close to the road where you could actually read them? Thank Lady Bird Johnson for making you squint.

Like most First Ladies, Mrs. Johnson had taken on a personal project to support; she championed the beautification of the country. Flowers and trees were planted throughout Washington, D.C., dilapidated buildings were freshly painted, and playgrounds in the inner city were refurbished. While driving through her home state of Texas one day, she decided that the many billboards along the freeways were eyesores, and that travelers would rather gaze at wildflowers while they motored. (Cynical Congressmen of that era observed that retailers deprived of billboard space would be forced to advertise on one of the radio stations Mrs. Johnson owned.)

Prior to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the federal government offered a financial incentive to any state that “controlled” the placement of billboards along interstate highways to the tune of an extra ½% in road funding, but fewer than 20 states participated in the program. The Outdoor Advertising Association fought the Beautification Act fiercely, and by the time it passed, it had been seriously watered down. Billboards were permitted in “those areas of commercial and industrial use,” and billboard owners were compensated for any of their ads that were removed once the bill passed. The act has been amended many times since then. For the most part, outdoor ads must be placed 660 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way, which is why some of us need binoculars to read them.

Blocking Out the Scenery, Breakin’ My Mind

Work from home! Recession-proof income! We’ve all seen these homemade signs tacked onto utility poles and placed curbside at major intersections; in fact this proliferation of street spam has become so overwhelmingly commonplace that it has its own name (and local ordinances forbidding same) – “bandit signs.”

Just to save you some time and money, please note that 99.99% of the “work from home” opportunities posted on bandit signs are ads for multi-level marketing companies and, unlike most traditional run-of-the-mill jobs, will cost you money to get involved. For example, Herbalife distributors are a major source of those bandit signs. But neither Herbalife nor any sort of company name is revealed to the unsuspecting folks calling the toll-free number until they’ve spent over $200 for the all-important “information packets.”

There are several grass roots organizations, such as CAUSS (Citizens Against Ugly Street Spam), dedicated to the fight against bandit signs. One of their (repeat: theirs, not mine) tips for private citizens who care to join in the war against illegal vertical litter is to not remove such signs, but to deface them. Removing the sign just leaves space for another spammer to plant his shingle. But scribbling on the sign with paint or permanent marker sends a message to any potential poster – sign sharks are patrolling this area and will do their best to prevent your message from being seen.

Sandwich Men

How does a small business owner promote his shop when there are very strict laws in place relative to posting signs and advertisements? Hire a human billboard.

In the early 1800s, the British economy was in serious need of funds; London was still rebuilding after the Great Fire, and the whole country had racked up a fair amount of debt as a result of that little skirmish with the Colonies. The Government decided to raise money the tried and true way—by imposing a variety of taxes. One of the many items that were assessed was advertising posters or signs tacked on buildings. To avoid paying the tax, business owners paid men a couple of shillings to wear two placards, front and back, supported by “suspenders” over the shoulders. These walking advertisements became so ubiquitous in London that author Charles Dickens was prompted to derisively describe them as “sandwich men” - "a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board.” As a result, “sandwich board” became the universal term to describe the wearable signs that also proved to be a popular promotional gimmick in the U.S.

Not an “Ad,” but a “Traffic Control Device”

Those large blue signs on freeways that let you know there’s a Shell station or a Cracker Barrel at the next exit are called “Interstate Logo Boards,” and they began popping up on America’s roadways in the early 1980s. Family road trips had been a tradition for over 20 years and during that time the mom ‘n pop cafes and motor hotels had exploded into a hundreds of different restaurant and motel chains. The traditional generic “Gas-Food-Lodging Next Exit” signs were now leaving motorists in a quandary: What kind of food? (My kids won’t eat anything but pizza.) Which gas stations? (I’ve only got Mobil and Amoco credit cards.) The logo boards soon became an essential aid for travelers.

The criteria for getting a business listed on a logo board are fairly complex. The business must be open a minimum number of hours per day, and must be located within three miles of the exit. All businesses listed must have restrooms, telephones and drinking water, and must have no cover charge or membership requirements. The list goes on. The rates for placing your logo on a sign vary from state to state, and if you want to include a “trailblazing” sign (the smaller directional sign pointing the way at the top of the exit), that costs extra.

Negotiating for space on a logo board can become cutthroat. In Tennessee, priority was given to restaurants that provided three meals a day and were closest to exits. Some clever pizza ship shop owners got around this rule by offering coffee and donuts to their cleaning crews and calling it “breakfast.” A rep for McDonald's, whose stores were further from the exit and had lost their coveted spot on the sign, petitioned the state to define “breakfast,” which resulted in several more paragraphs of rules and regulations.

Posted: Obviously

First things first: Common Law dictates that walking across private property is trespassing, whether there are signs or not. You can be prosecuted if you’re found camping, hunting or fishing on someone’s land without an invitation, no matter how much you protest that there wasn’t a fence or a sign.

As far as the penalties go, landowners who take the time and money to conform to certain regulations can actually demand a bit more per pound of flesh than the guy who nails a generic hardware store-bought “No Trespassing” sign to a tree. Actual signage requirements vary from state to state, but each does have specific steps a landowner must take to consider his property “Posted.” In most cases, the signs have to be no less than 500 feet apart along the perimeter of the property, and must also include the landowner’s name. In many jurisdictions, the signs have to be a certain size with a specified typeface size. Only if the landlord follows these directives may he legally declare his land “Posted,” which ultimately gives him more leverage in court against unwanted hikers or hunters.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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