Drive-By Advertising: Then and Now

Designed to catch your attention while leaving a lasting impression, billboards have an interesting place in history. From humorous to thought-provoking, they decorate our roadsides, draw-attention to our buildings, and often stick with us long after we leave them behind. So, where did these over-sized advertising tools find their start?

(source – This is the only image available for this billboard)

Drive-by advertising has been around since the circus came to New York City in 1835. Early billboards were basically large posters attached to the sides of buildings. In 1889 the world’s first 24-panel billboard was erected, paving the way for what was to come.

McDONALDS Original painted billboard

Hand-painted billboards were created in large studios. The image was projected onto panels, outlined, and then painted on using large brushes and oil paints. After it was installed the artists would touch-up the paint where the panels came together.

A prime example of the hand-painted billboards, this billboard (above) was erected in Salt Lake City, UT, in 1908.


In 1911, one of the first lighted billboards is recorded as having been erected in Los Angeles, CA. They were soon popping up everywhere as a great way to advertise 24-hours a day.

(source + many more great images of this type of billboard)

These 1947 billboards are notable for their construction which was originally all-wood (top), and then lauded for its 100% all-steel construction (bottom).

Billboards of Today

Billboards were transformed by digital technology, which replaced hand-painted boards with computer-painted wonders. This has made possible a diverse selection of advertising formats.

Today you can still find hand-painted billboards in Los Angeles, California’s “Sunset Strip.”


Chick-fil-A is known for its use of three-dimensional billboards featuring black and white cows protesting the eating of beef. Surprisingly lacking in color, these billboards are eye-catching in their simplicity, while their use of humor makes them memorable.

Digital billboards are versatile in that they can have changing images, display running text, or be used by more than one company for advertising.

Inflatable billboard  placed in the median of busy traffic. 

Inflatable / floatable beach advertising

Inflatable, bubbly-fun shaped billboard

Inflatable billboards are colorful, eye-catching, shapely and easy to set up for temporary events (many more entertaining inflatable billboards at image source).


The first scented billboard was erected by the Bloom Grocery Store chain in June 2010. Set to emit a burst of black pepper and charcoal twice a day during rush hour, this billboard has brought outside advertising to a whole new dimension.


Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund worked together to create, quite literally, the “greenest” billboard in history. Located in the Philippines, this billboard is covered in Fukien tea plants, which were planted in old Coke bottles to allow sideways growth. Each plant absorbs up to 13 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

Helping us find a place to eat, sleep, get fuel, or be entertained, Billboards are everywhere! For small businesses, these large, colorful, eye-catching wonders are sometimes the cheapest way to advertise a business, not to mention their ability to reach far more people than almost any other advertising medium. One thing is certain, billboards make our commuting lives a little more colorful and a little easier as they entertain, distract and direct us on the road.

Robyn Sutherland is a freelance writer and editor from the green mountains of Oregon. She graduated from Southern Oregon University in 2005 with a B.A. in English and Writing. Her colourful life is filled with romps in the park, crazy vacations, and funny everyday adventures with her loving husband and two energetic little boys.