Why are there no billboards in Seattle?

The other day, I was talking with someone and the topic of ads came up.

“Did you ever notice that there are no billboards in Seattle?”

I sat there perplexed by his question. How could a city have no billboards? My small suburban hometown back in California had billboards! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he had a point. I could distinctly recall one billboard in my Capitol Hill neighborhood: a “Jesus Is _____” (frequently graffiti-ed) monstrosity over by the Chloe apartments. I used to walk past it daily freshmen year on my way home from work; it’s long gone now, of course, and replaced with some other ad, I’m sure.

So why are there no billboards (or at least not nearly as many as in other cities)? Billboards are probably one of the most recognizable and effective forms of print advertising–it seems odd that an entire city would be without them.

I set out to see if I could figure out the reason behind the phenomenon.

Apparently, Seattle has laws about all sorts of signage. I found an article on crosscut.com that explained the whole situation a lot better than I could. Essentially, Seattle set up laws restricting billboards a while back to help limit the impact of commercial advertising. In the 1960s, Washington banned billboards from freeways (there is an exception near Fife due to land being owned by the Puyallup Tribe). The city of Seattle followed suit and restricted billboards. There are laws for on-site and off-site signage (which would include billboards) that continue to be reinforced to this day.

Of course, the laws haven’t existed without opposition. An article from late last year on Komo News discussed ways big business were shadily getting around billboard laws. To get around the rules, businesses were using empty storefronts as spots to display their oversized ads; of course, the community didn’t respond well.

Are billboards really that bad? A recent  blurb on The Stranger’s website suggests banning billboards entirely, like Brazil did in Sao Paolo. There seems to be a good chunk of people in Seattle that really, really dislike big advertisements. Personally, I don’t mind not seeing giant signs for McDonalds or Bank of America everywhere. Sure, every so often I’ll be driving back in California and see a billboard that makes me chuckle, but I don’t miss them all that much.

It’s an interesting idea that the city has taken it upon itself to limit commercial advertising. There are plenty of ads everywhere (just look at a street post in Capitol Hill) but most of the advertising I’m exposed to is local– upcoming shows, music releases, discounts for local businesses, events in the city…I see plenty of advertising elsewhere on television, at the movies, in magazines, online, etc. I don’t think I’m missing out by not having billboards in my backyard.

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