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Billboards Still Used for Personal Appeals

July 12, 2006

On a highway billboard around Medina in northwest New York, Lisa Fickel asks a question of all who drive by: ``Do You Know Who Killed My Husband?″

The billboards offer a $25,000 reward and show a picture of her husband, Bill, relaxing at home in an overstuffed chair with Bo, the family’s black Labrador, at his feet. It was taken before the cable television installer was gunned down Nov. 10 outside his home.

``I tried to make it as personal as possible because I wanted to tug at persons’ heartstrings,″ said Fickel, who is trying to generate leads in her husband’s slaying and keep his memory alive.

At a time when messages are delivered via the Internet and other high-tech ways, people are still using billboards to make personal appeals: They are looking for jobs, for a mate, or clues in an unsolved crime.

Technology also can make such a public outreach more effective, said Meredith Hurt, spokeswoman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. With the proliferation of cell phones, portable wireless computers and text messaging, motorists can now immediately respond to such appeals.

``One of the main things outdoor advertising does is it has a call to action,″ Hurt said. ``It’s an immediate outreach to somebody.″

Mary Witt, of Erie, Pa., did make a connection with her billboard.

Witt had spent $600 to put her photo and qualifications on a billboard after she was laid off from her job as a secretary at City Hall in December. ``It got tough,″ said Witt, 47. ``I’ve always been a worker. My husband could tell I was kind of getting depressed.″

Her 10-by-22-foot resume went up April 10 off a well-traveled highway and stayed up for a month. Witt received about 20 serious inquiries from potential employers, but none of the jobs panned out. In one case, for example, she thought the commute was too long.

``We put an investment in me and went with it and were hoping for the best,″ she said. ``But it’s tough out there. I’m still out there looking every day _ on the Internet, the newspaper, word of mouth. I’m not giving up yet.″

The nation’s earliest recorded billboard leasings occurred in 1867. In 1900, a standardized billboard structure was created, paving the way for a boom in national billboard campaigns.

Today, most billboards are rented for commercial use. In 2004, companies spent $5.8 billion in outdoor advertising in the United States. The ad group, which represents 1,100 companies around the country, doesn’t track the number of noncommercial, personal appeals and messages on billboards.

Anthony Pratkanis, professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said renting billboards can be expensive but effective.

``I’m surprised more people haven’t done it,″ Pratkanis said. ``And it gives a sense of legitimacy to their efforts.″

For Harold Raymond, his billboard has not yet yielded a wife.

Raymond, a 46-year-old trucker from Omaha, Neb., spent about $1,000 to put up billboards in the city last summer advertising for a wife. ``I tried Internet dating, and it just flat didn’t work,″ he said. ``I couldn’t seem to get the women to e-mail me back and stick it out.″

Raymond, who also has a wife-seeking Web site, felt that if he opened himself up in a very public way by renting a billboard, he might find some takers. And by using a billboard, he felt he could reach his target audience, women who lived in the area.

But only about half a dozen women from the area responded. One was too young, another wasn’t his type, and the rest were more curious than seriously interested, he said. Convinced that a billboard can help him find a wife, he is thinking of spending $3,000 to rent space again this summer.

Police agencies are using billboards to catch fugitives or turn up leads in cold cases.

This spring, the Butler County sheriff’s office put up five billboards near Hamilton, Ohio, offering a reward for information leading to the killer of Alana Gwinner, a 23-year-old woman whose body was found in Kentucky eight years ago.

``We got numerous calls on this,″ said Detective Frank Smith. ``We’re actually still sifting through all the leads.″

Fickel, 43, has gotten something extra out of her appeal.

``One of the billboards happened to be on the route I travel every day back and forth to work,″ she said. ``Every morning I would start my day with seeing a smile on Bill’s face. And it gave me a little bit of peace.″


On the Net:

Outdoor Advertising Association of America: http://www.oaaa.org

Will Work for a Wife: http://willworkforawife.org

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