Oct 122011

Advertising landscapes

By Dave Cooper

I am standing on New Circle Road, and this is what I see: flags everywhere.

One flag says “90 Day Refills.”  The next one reads “One Hour Photo.” Then “Drive Through Pharmacy.”  In the next block, a matching pair of flags shouts out the message “SONIC.” Just past the flags is a large sign that says “Salvation Army Thrift Store.” Across the street another announces “Brothers Auto Sales.”

Looking up and down the road: “Swifty – Pay Cash and Save,” “Burgers 99 Shakes,” Check Advance, Golden Corral, Advance Auto Parts, Beds To Go, Bryan Station Inn, “We Buy Gold,” “Buy Sell Trade Anything of Value,” Quality Auto Sales, “We Buy Anything,” “GOLD,” “For Sale,” Kroger, Firestone, Marathon, Demovellan.com, “Now Hiring,” Frito-Lay Sun Chips, “Welcome UK Credit Union Members,” Fed Ex, “Financing Available,” “Free Carfax Report,” “Big G Express Trucking.” On the corner is my favorite: “S&M Pawn Shop – Where Courtesy is a Must.”

It’s enough to make you sick, all of this visual junk.  Most outdoor advertising is done as garishly as possible, using big, thick block letters to bash us over the heads with thick, blockheaded messages. 

On New Circle Road, at a given point, it is possible to read as many as 42 different advertising messages up and down the roadway.This number does not include those ubiquitous little plastic yard signs in the medians.  From my New Circle Road vantage point, I can see one that says “I Buy Diabetic Test Strips.” (Used ones?, I wonder.) Nor does it include the orgy of advertising that exists at most gas stations and convenience stores. Some have so many decals and stickers on their front glass doors that you can barely see inside. Outside on the light poles, zip-ties affix cheap, ugly plastic signs advertising beer, cigarettes, lottery tickets and soda. Running out of light poles, I have noted that cigarette and beer companies sometimes drive metal fence posts into the ground—then attach more signs to the fence posts.

In my neighborhood a Marathon station employs a yellow plastic corrugated sign with a picture of a cow stampeding across a dusty plain and the word “LONGHORN” at the top.  Alongside the cow it says “NEW LOOK! SAME GREAT TASTE!” Nearby pictures of two plastic tobacco tins are accompanied by text reading, “Long Cut Wintergreen” and “Fine Cut Natural” flavors.

How did we allow things to get this bad?


This constant bombardment of advertising cheapens and degrades our quality of life.  It’s visual clutter.  Outdoor advertising assaults our senses and desensitizes us.  It’s stupid, crude and ugly.  It uplifts no one. Just imagine how beautiful it would be if every sign and billboard on the northeast part of New Circle was replaced by a mature tree, providing cooling shade in the summer for all the motorists stuck in traffic.  Wouldn’t that be better for everyone?

Many years ago I subscribed to an anti-consumerism magazine called Adbusters.  They advocated, among other things, “Buy Nothing Day” on the Friday after Thanksgiving every year. [Editor’s note: See Michael Benton’s “A nation starts to mobilize,” in this issue.]

The main thrust of Adbusters was culture-jamming: using advertising against itself.  One of the most famous Adbusters images, a 1990s satire of the Camel cigarettes cartoon icon Joe Camel, was “Joe Chemo.”

Courtesy Adbusters. Visit them at http://www.adbusters.org/

Image courtesy Adbusters. Visit them at http://www.adbusters.org/

There’s nothing funny about chemotherapy, of course, but at the time, the tobacco wars were still raging and the cigarette companies deserved every bashing they got, and then some.

Adbusters also subtly encouraged and inspired readers to perform billboard liberations: modifying billboards to ridicule or subvert the advertising message.  I only did this one time, in Meigs County, Ohio, at Mountain Justice Spring Break in 2008.  We staple-gunned a bed sheet with a large skull-and-crossbones emblem onto a roadside billboard advertising clean coal.  Unfortunately, the staples pulled out pretty quickly, but it stayed up for a few hours.  The fun part was getting up in the middle of the night and climbing up in the dark on the billboard catwalk.  It’s scary and those billboards are a lot bigger than you might think.

I’ve since learned that rubber cement is a better way to attach images to advertising.  The cement can be removed without damaging the underlying image. (Much more information on billboard liberation, including some “how-to” tips, can be found on line.)


What got me thinking about Adbusters, Joe Camel and excessive outdoor advertising was the repainting of the railroad bridge on North Broadway around Sixth Street.  If you have already seen it, you will know what I mean.

For those who haven’t seen it, the RJ CORMAN RAILROAD CO. decided to take their dirty, greasy old railroad bridge, clean it up and paint it bright red—and I mean bright red. To remind us all that they own the bridge, the company helpfully painted the words “RJ CORMAN RAILROAD CO.” in three foot high white letters on both sides of the bridge.  The message can be read from about a half mile away.

Photo by Dave Cooper


I think it’s great that RJ CORMAN RAILROAD CO. is fixing up their old bridge. Other cities have made their historic bridges into landmarks: Think of the 1890’s-era Walnut Street pedestrian bridge/walkway in Chattanooga near the Tennessee Aquarium, or the famous Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati that crosses the Ohio River. Cincinnati also has the Purple People Bridge, the old L&N Railroad bridge converted into a pedestrian bridge in 2003, which is an enjoyable and healthy way fun to cross the Ohio River.

The RJ CORMAN RAILROAD CO. bridge that now graces the main entrance into our town is but one of several newly painted RJ decals recently sprung around town. Two more Lexington railroad bridges are turning RJ Corman red: on Old Paris Pike at dead man’s curve, and at an overpass on New Circle near Liberty Road. Another new Corman company building is going up at the intersection of West Main and Newtown Pike. This has brought five shiny red pieces of RJ Corman railroad equipment to the site, where they are now parked at the end of Newtown Pike. They are so spotless, it looks like some kind of railroad museum.

For me personally, though, my RJ bridge has become somewhat of a Lexington navigation landmark.  When I tell people how to get downtown, I tell them go six blocks past the obnoxious red bridge.

Company founder Rick Corman, now seriously ill with cancer, built the Nicholasville-based company into a very successful railroad behemoth.  According to the company website, Corman started building his company in 1973 just out of high school with only a single backhoe.  It’s an amazing success story. But still, shouldn’t there be some limits on how many times a local company can plaster its name—in three foot high letters—on bridges or highway overpasses?

Coda: Public encounters at RJ’s bridge

As I was taking some photos of the CORMAN bridge on North Broadway, a very intoxicated man sitting underneath the bridge accosted me.

“Man, you know what that is?” he said, pointing to the newly-painted bridge framework.

“That’s PIG iron.  That’s PIG iron.  Wont rust—ever!”

I told him I was writing an essay about the bridge for North of Center.  I asked him what pig iron was: Is it different from steel?

He leaned into my face and pointed at the bridge again. “That’s what – man, you don’t know shit!  That’s the same thing they make battleships out of.  And nuclear … nuclear … that’s PIG iron.  Won’t rust ever.”

I asked him if he liked the new bridge.  The painters did a very meticulous job.  Even the pigeons seemed to have a new strut in their strut.

“RJ Corman—that’s HIS bridge.  Man, you don’t know shit!”

I tried to ask him a few more questions, but he obviously didn’t like me.  He staggered and waved his bottle around.  I tried to be polite and asked if he had been in the Navy, but he became belligerent and began berating me:  “You the biggest BABY I ever met!  You the biggest BABY ever!”

Whelp, time to go!

As I turned to walk away, I noticed he was unzipping his fly.  “I gotta take a PISS!” he announced to the world.  As I got back into my car parked in the Subway parking lot, I saw that he was urinating in public underneath the shiny new bridge.

I wish I would have gotten that photo.  It would be perfect for Adbusters.

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