As I’ve mentioned before, my wife has been isolated in Colorado — bad timing, she was visiting our family in late February, and all the stay-at-home orders started crashing down in mid-March — so yesterday was the day I was finally free of other obligations to make the long drive down to bring her back home. So here I am. Yeesh, was it a long drive. 14 hours from my door to Longmont, Colorado.
I had something to entertain me, though. The dullest portion of the trip was several hundred miles on I90 in South Dakota, which ought to be embarrassing to South Dakotans, since it exposes the soul of the state. It’s nothing but billboards, big ugly billboards, and they’re all advertising garbage. The most frequent billboards along that stretch of highway are:
- Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug. Every mile or two there’s another sign to let you know Wall Drug is 292 miles (or whatever) ahead of you, sometimes mentioning some feature you will find there…Western Paintings or Dinosaurs or Cowboy Boots, or to let you know they were mentioned in Reader’s Digest or the New York Times or People magazine.
I’ve been there, once, almost 20 years ago. It’s a hole-in-the-wall in the middle of nowhere. It’s a rustic strip mall, splattered with kitsch. No, you do not want to visit Wall Drug, unless you have a burning desire for a plastic key chain with your name on it, or want to buy a bad cup of coffee for 5 cents.
1880 Town. Never been there, but jeez they must be desperate. So many signs begging you to come see their blacksmith shop or kids, come get a deputy’s badge from the sheriff.
The Gutzom Borglum Story. Apparently, he has a museum somewhere near Mt Rushmore. It’s apparently very patriotic. I guess you could say the creator of that iconic eyesore is patriotic, if taking over native lands, appropriating a beautiful natural mountain, and dynamiting it until it looks like a quartet of politicians is a sublimely American version of patriotism. Been there once, too. Never again.
It does tell you what works in advertising, though. It’s not quality, or cleverness, or information — it’s just straight up mindless repetition. Drill your brand into people’s brains until they think it’s only natural to stop at Wall Drug and see what all the fuss is about. It’s awful. I hate it. It’s a blight on a lovely countryside, and I guarantee you that if those businesses didn’t have thousands of signs poisoning traveler’s brains, no one would bother to stop at those pointless places, and they would dry up and blow away. The demand is entirely artificial.
Which makes it amusing that as I got closer to each of them, their billboards started sporting “CLOSED” notices.
Also amusing: frequently, but with nowhere near the frequency of those tourist traps, landowners along the route started emulating the capitalist advertising policies and putting up their own little advertisements: “JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS” was popular. The comparison does not help their cause. It seems that repeating a meaningless mantra is effective at getting people to parrot it back, but it also cheapens it. Jesus is the Wall Drug of religion: cheesy schlock for the masses that is ultimately disappointing, building a following on empty reiteration of slogans.