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"HELL IS REAL": The Battle over an Interstate Billboard

Hell Is Real

In last week's piece, I wrote about my trip across The Bluegrass State to speak at the monthly gathering of Louisville's Social Media Club. On my way there, I passed one of my favorite advertising juxtapositions. Off to the right, there's an exit sporting the sign for an adult bookstore that you'll find along any stretch of Interstate. Then, on the left, there is a black billboard with a message written in big block letters: "HELL IS REAL."

In this era of digital culture, we too often act as if grassroots efforts to get messages out against the commercial establishment is somehow new. Yet, here in Kentucky, the adult bookstore and the "HELL IS REAL" advocate have been in place, battling it out, for years. Conservative Christian groups are among the voices who have been organizing anti-commercial protests of one sort or another for decades. The Temperance Movement certainly had a religious flare to it, as have many of the civil rights sit-ins that protested treatment of various groups by commercial or governmental entities.

More recently, I remember from my trips to the theater here in Kentucky to go see Brokeback Mountain or The Da Vinci Code, that Christian groups have long been quick to organize protests against the sale of something they oppose. And, as the holiday season approaches, I've already started receiving a steady stream of "don't take the Christ out of Christmas" messages that likewise have a strong anti-commercial bent, encouraging me not to forget "the reason for the season" amidst all the shopping.

And there, in Upton, Kentucky, along I-65, we have the perfect visualization of this longstanding struggle in our culture. Is the billboard a sign of "religious crazies" who want to push their prudish beliefs on the masses? An indication of grassroots efforts against an industry that objectifies women and promotes unsafe lifestyles? An earnest religious plea to save souls? Of course, it depends on one's own beliefs and orientation. But there's no question that this spot on the interstate captures the current of what matters to Americans.

Earlier this year, the sign garnered some controversy. The state's transportation cabinet had filed a complaint locally in 2008 that the sign was not in line with regulations for billboards along state roads. This February, a court ruled that it must be removed under the state's purview "to preserve highway safety and scenic beauty."

Then came State House Bill 536, filed by Glasgow Rep. Johnny Bell, which would deregulate the state's oversight over non-commercial billboards, aimed specifically at the controversy over a court order for removing this billboard and a similar one owned by the same man elsewhere on I-65. The bill passed the state house but failed to pass the state senate after the Federal Highway Administration threatened to pull transportation funding if the bill was passed. (See more here and here.)

The debates arose. Was this an issue of "public safety and scenic beauty"? Or was it government regulation of non-commercial, grassroots speech? Was the state legislature overstepping its bounds by protecting religious messages? Or was the federal government overstepping its bounds by threatening to pull funding as a way to regulate First Amendment rights exercised on private property?

The site in Upton has generated a great number of photo uploads and blog entries from travelers through the state over the past few years, but that billboard is actually just one of several that Interstate travelers can find in Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and other states in the area. Perhaps the most outspoken and creative of these protests is WAR-LINE, John Reneer's effort to protest pornography as support for the rape of women. The group has posted people outside entrances to adult bookstores, taking pictures of all who enter and sporting signs warning that they will tell truckers' employers that they are visiting such "dens of iniquity" (my words, not theirs).

Still, the battle of the billboards just up the road from me remains. At least as of November 2010, "HELL IS REAL" is still up to challenge the "adult bookstore," court orders or not. And the debates will continue as to whether this is a free-speech example of grassroots anti-commercial protest or a distracting eyesore from a religious zealot.

In the meantime, on my way back from Louisville, I was greeted with a less controversial sign that will perhaps remain a staple for Kentucky travelers for decades to come. The place I call home, Bowling Green, entices weary travelers with the message, "Lincoln Never Slept Here...But You Can!" And, with more than 90 % of the country expecting to travel via car this Thanksgiving, hope all of you have a safe holiday travel and see a few interesting billboards along the way.

["Hell Is Real" Image via Pitt Rehab]

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.