Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards

The Highway Beautification Act restricted billboards and other unsightly advertising along scenic U.S. roadways. More than forty years after the act’s passage, however, hundreds of thousands of billboards remain along U.S. highways and roadways.

Summary of Event

In the post-World War II period, the billboard industry in the United States experienced explosive growth as manufacturers sought to exploit the new car culture and the expanding U.S. highway system to reach potential customers. As a result, by the early 1960’s, many U.S. highways were cluttered with more billboards than it was possible for even an interested motorist to read. A reaction against billboards, which many people considered to be ugly and which were reputed to cause traffic accidents, soon began in roadside councils, garden clubs, and other civic groups throughout the United States. Billboards
Highway Beautification Act (1965)
[kw]Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards (Aug., 1965)
[kw]Highway Billboards, Congress Limits the Use of (Aug., 1965)
[kw]Billboards, Congress Limits the Use of Highway (Aug., 1965)
Highway Beautification Act (1965)
[g]North America;Aug., 1965: Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards[08480]
[g]United States;Aug., 1965: Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards[08480]
[c]Marketing and advertising;Aug., 1965: Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards[08480]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug., 1965: Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards[08480]
[c]Environmental issues;Aug., 1965: Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards[08480]
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy
Johnson, Lady Bird
Tocker, Phillip
Fox, Hilda V.

In response to such concerns, the Highway Beautification Act, the first major federal attempt to deal with “visual pollution” of U.S. roadways by billboards and other large advertisements, was approved by the U.S. Congress and signed into law in August, 1965. The act forbade the use of signs within 660 feet of interstate and primary highways in the United States, with the exception of official directional signs and on-site advertising. Commercial and industrial areas were exempted from the act’s provisions. Individual states were given until 1970 to enforce compliance with the act; states that failed to meet federal standards by that time were threatened with the loss of as much as 20 percent of their federal highway funds.

Before the 1965 act’s passage, only one federal law had specifically regulated the use of billboards, and that legislation, which had been passed in 1958, merely offered federal bonus money to states that controlled billboard use in areas adjoining the interstate highway system. Under the 1958 law, only seven states—Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia—had qualified for the federal bonuses.

In May, 1965, President Johnson called a White House conference to discuss the proposed new law. Beautification activists such as Hilda V. Fox, the head of the Pennsylvania Roadside Council Pennsylvania Roadside Council (later the Pennsylvania Resources Council) and a representative of an array of civic groups, pressed for the adoption of legislation prohibiting billboards within 1,000 feet of interstate and primary highways, with no exempt areas. This more stringent version of the proposed bill also addressed other forms of visual pollution. For example, new junkyards were to be prohibited within 1,000 feet of interstate and primary highways, and existing junkyards would have to be removed or screened within five years. States were to be required to devote 3 percent of their federal highway money to the landscaping and beautification of roadsides. States would also be required to use one-third of their federal highway aid for improvement of secondary roads and access roads to scenic and recreational areas.

At the conference, the beautification activists’ suggestions were resisted by advertising interests led by Phillip Tocker, the chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA). Tocker called for changes to the proposed legislation, vowing that he and other industry lobbyists would oppose the bill’s passage unless its provisions were substantially weakened. Tocker demanded that the distance limit be reduced to 660 feet, that commercial and industrial areas be exempted from the bill’s provisions, and that the federal government compensate billboard owners for losses. The OAAA’s membership, which included hundreds of U.S. companies, accounted for nearly 90 percent of the nation’s outdoor advertising. In the face of this formidable lobby, presidential advisers were convinced that the bill would not pass Congress unless most of the advertisers’ demands were met. Thus, although Fox and the rest of the beautification forces fought for the more restrictive measures, Tocker and the industry groups received most of the concessions they sought.

Even after these compromises, congressional passage of the bill was delayed. Some supporters advocated waiting until the following congressional session to try to push through a stronger version of the legislation. In August, however, President Johnson began to apply pressure to pass the bill in the 1965 session.

With the backing of a powerful president and the partial appeasement of the advertising lobby, a version of the bill was soon approved. The adopted version, however, contained even more compromises than the one negotiated at the White House conference. According to the final version, the U.S. Treasury would compensate billboard owners and landowners if they were affected by the new law. The federal government was required to assume three-fourths of the costs associated with the bill, with the states paying the remaining one-fourth. Junkyards were exempted from screening and removal requirements in commercial and industrial areas.

Moreover, the bill authorized the use of federal money for the landscaping of roadsides and for the construction of scenic and recreational areas, costs that were previously assigned to the states. The areas that were to receive exemptions were to be determined by the states, with the approval of the U.S. secretary of commerce. John Conner Conner, John , the acting secretary, assured Congress that state decisions would seldom be contested by the federal government. The final bill was thus substantially weaker than the original proposals; more than 80 percent of the nation’s existing billboards were exempted from the act’s restrictions.


By watering down the act’s provisions, the advertising lobby had protected the heart of its industry. Less than 20 percent of the nation’s outdoor advertising would be affected by the new regulations, and even this diminished effect would not be fully felt for five years; additionally, many losses were to be compensated by the federal government. Moreover, advertisers could simply construct larger signs beyond the restricted 660-foot range and could add signs in exempt areas, thus reaching essentially the same audience as before the act’s passage.

The Highway Beautification Act thus proved less effective than many of its proponents had hoped. The first removal of a billboard as a result of the law did not occur until April of 1971. For the most part, offending billboards were not removed sooner because the act stated that owners of removed signs had to be compensated. Congress did not authorize substantial funds to carry out the act’s provisions until 1970; until then, most states could not afford to compensate large numbers of billboard owners. Many billboards that violated the act thus remained in place long after the law was passed. Officials in some states tried to enforce the act before the necessary funding was available by promising to compensate owners later, when federal funds came through. Such efforts failed, however, because the act clearly stated that compensation had to be given for every billboard removed.

Billboard use in the United States nevertheless declined steadily in subsequent years. Perhaps the most important reason for the decline was the simple fact that manufacturers came to the conclusion that billboards and other signs were less effective than many other forms of advertising, particularly commercial television. Such a result may well have stemmed in part from the barrage of outdoor advertising that had aroused the beautification lobby in the first place. Many U.S. cities were inundated with billboards, and, as a result, many Americans simply stopped reading them or became otherwise immune to their blandishments.

The principal attraction of billboards to advertisers lay in the relative permanence of the medium. Unlike newspaper, radio, or television advertisements, which might exist for only days or even seconds, billboard advertisements could, for a single fee, beckon customers for months at a time. Moreover, signs in prime locations near major highways could be passed by many thousands of potential customers each day.

Many manufacturers discovered, however, that other media produced more sales per advertising dollar. Despite their permanence, billboards had obvious disadvantages. They could not, for example, carry much text, since drivers and passengers could not be expected to read more than a brief phrase or slogan in the limited time that a highway sign would be in view. While billboard usage was tapering off in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s, most other U.S. advertising media reported substantial increases in business.

Certain types of products and services did lend themselves to billboard advertising. Billboard advertisements for products or services aimed at travelers proved effective; automobile travelers, it was discovered, tended to leave aspects of their trips unplanned and were thus susceptible to billboard suggestions. Highway sign advertisements were particularly effective in attracting business to restaurants, hotels and motels, and service stations.

Nevertheless, many companies, especially those that sold supermarket products, discovered billboard advertising to be comparatively unproductive. Billboards could effectively announce the existence of a nearby business to a traveler. Unlike a thirty-second television commercial, however, a billboard advertisement could not offer a persuasive comparison between competing brands of a household product. Since billboard viewers did not typically have immediate need for such items as detergent or breakfast cereal, the signs’ relative inarticulateness tended to outweigh their advantages to advertisers of such products.

State and local laws against sign use also contributed to the decline in billboard use. In the 1970’s, for example, Denver, Colorado, passed several laws to increase restrictions on billboards and other signs. Among the major proponents of the new ordinances was an official of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television Television;advertising network. CBS’s support tended to confirm suspicions that dwindling billboard usage was causing an increase in television advertising. Some legislation had the opposite effect. After cigarette commercials were banned from U.S. radio and television in 1970, billboards became a primary vehicle for tobacco advertising.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was thus only one of several causes of a substantial decline in billboard use along American roadways. Nevertheless, the legislation did help control unsightly signs near scenic roads and also acted as a useful precedent for more stringent state and local laws. Billboards
Highway Beautification Act (1965)

Further Reading

  • “Beauty and the Billboards.” The New Republic, April 23, 1966, 8-9. An analysis of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America and its members’ use of billboards. Gives an overview of the Highway Beautification Act and discusses its provisions for funding sign removal.
  • Drew, Elizabeth Brenner. “Lady Bird’s Beauty Bill.” Atlantic Monthly, December, 1965, 68-72. An account of the White House conference on the proposed act and of the compromises made to get the bill through Congress.
  • Duerksen, Christopher J., and R. Matthew Goebel. Aesthetics, Community Character, and the Law. Chicago: American Planning Association, 1999. An urban planners’ guide concerned with community design issues and landscape aesthetics, with a chapter addressing billboards.
  • Gotfryd, Bernard. “Signs of the Times.” Newsweek, March 8, 1965, 89-90. Contains a summary of U.S. billboard regulation before the passage of the Highway Beautification Act.
  • Gould, Lewis. Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. A thorough discussion of the environmental agenda of the Highway Beautification Act’s most celebrated supporter. Also examines Lady Bird Johnson’s role in the America Beautiful program.
  • Gudis, Catherine. Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape. New York: Routledge, 2004. A critical look at America’s culture of highway advertising and consumption.
  • Pell, Robert. “Escalating Ugliness.” America 122 (June 12, 1965): 848-849. A contemporary analysis of the White House conference on the proposed act and of President Johnson’s support of beautification measures.
  • Scenic America. Web site of an organization dedicated to educating the public about the“blizzard of monstrous billboards, badly sited telecommunications towers, a tangle of overhead lines, and a hodgepodge of visual clutter” that is “obscuring” America’s roads and highways. Highly recommended.
  • “The Sign Busters.” Newsweek, June 7, 1971, 116-117. A look at the law’s effect six years after its passage. Reports on the act’s somewhat disappointing results but also notes the adoption of more stringent legislation on the state and local levels.
  • United States. House. Committee on Small Business. Traversing the Twists and Impacts of the Highway Beautification Act upon Small Business. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2003. Report of a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Rural Enterprise, Agriculture, and Technology on how the billboard act has affected small businesses since its implementation in 1965.

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