How Living Billboards Work

By: Robert Lamb  | 
Most billboards stand out as something dead and man-made, but living billboards are changing this.
Raimund Koch/Photodisc/Getty Images

If you've spent much time on the highways, then you've probably seen your share of living billboards. While a 48-foot (14.6-meter) sign may initially stand out from the vegetation surrounding it, many environments have a tendency to take back what's theirs. Vines creep up poles and ladders. Branches droop to obscure slogans and logos. In the Southeastern United States, kudzu rolls over everything like a green wave.

While billboard owners traditionally do their best to keep these signs visible and free of plant growth, a new trend emerged in recent years. With environmentalism all the rage, why not jazz up a green advertising campaign with some actual greens?


Several big-league advertising agencies have stirred up some attention for their brands with billboards that literally come alive. In 2005, Young & Rubicam turned heads in Toronto with a billboard in Dundas Square. Featuring more than 900 live plants, the sign combined the texture and hue of living vegetation with more traditional signage promoting the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV.

In 2007, Chicago's advertising agency Leo Burnett erected a simple but eye-catching billboard in the Windy City for the McDonald's fast-food chain. The words "Fresh Salads" were spelled out in giant letters, each made up of living lettuce plants maintained in the sign. The campaign spread word of the restaurant's upgraded "healthy menu" across the environmental blogosphere.

In this article, we'll look at what goes into creating a green billboard and how the green community feels about the strategy.


The Hanging Gardens of Commercialism

You can bet that a great deal of green went into this living billboard -- and we're not just talking about the lettuce.
Image courtesy Leo Burnett

When it comes to elevating vegetation atop a man-made structure, consider these two extremes: a highway billboard overtaken by kudzu and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While the former simply happens on its own, the latter -- one of the Seven Wonders of the World -- required quite a bit of effort and ingenuity, much like today's living billboards.

Installing a living garden atop a sign requires more work than what usually goes into typical billboard. For instance, the team at Leo Burnett didn't just glue a bunch of potted plants to its Chicago billboard. Team members hired a horticulture expert from the University of Illinois to implement a patented Canadian vertical growing method. The complex structure underlying the sign involved the use of soilless soils and an irrigation system. Plus, the firm had to alter its original time frame for the campaign to meet the needs of the plants, as the lettuce wouldn't have coped well with the summer heat [source: Larson].


A winning entry from the 2008 International Design Awards (IDA) Land & Sea Competition took a promising approach to the notion of a living billboard. TODO Design and Das Studio presented plans for a billboard structure that greens up the area surrounding the sign, while not actually playing a role in the advertisement. The design calls for water to be raised to the billboard's potted plants via a pumping system that, in turn, is powered by solar panels on top of the structure [source: IDA].

Environmentally friendly technology often plays a role in green billboard designs. In fact, Japan's Ricoh Company Ltd. launched a billboard in New York City's advertising-heavy Times Square in January 2009. The buildings in the area are crawling with brightly lit advertisements, like a kind of urban kudzu, but the $1 million Ricoh sign gets all of its electricity from solar panels and specially designed wind turbines [source: Gruber].

Of course, as any fan of the television show "Mad Men" can tell you, advertising executives and hippies don't exactly see eye to eye on everything. Are living billboards truly green, or are they greenwashing?


Green Billboards or Greenwashing?

In another "living billboard" campaign, Delta Air Lines loaded a plane with 10 passengers in Times Square during summer 1997 in New York. Today, some imaginative designs call for billboards to double as studio apartments in the sky.
AP Photo/Ed Baily

If you're not familiar with the idea of greenwashing, then think of the last time you turned on the TV. Was that bottle of cleaner really nontoxic, or did it just boast friendly earth tones on the label?

Or what about that car commercial with all the animated leaves and chirping birds? Even if the vehicle advertised is environmentally sound, what about the rest of the manufacturer's policies, products and production standards? Might one "green" product merely serve as a means of distracting from all the damage it continues to inflict on the planet? To learn more, read How Greenwashing Works.


As you might imagine, many critics look at an advertisement such as the McDonald's lettuce billboard, and even the "fresh" menu items it promotes, as a form of greenwashing. Yet, many observers recognize that a living billboard is better than a dead one, regardless of the advertiser's motivations. Even the sustainability Web site admitted to liking the campaign [source: Alter]. TODO Design and Das Studio's plans also met with praise from some environmentalists, for their use of self-sustaining technologies and oxygen-enriching vegetation.

A lot of options will likely come down to billboard location. Even one lush with vegetation is hardly a part of the natural environment out in the countryside. In an urban environment, however, the billboard would likely stand in the midst of artificiality anyway. Planting greens on a billboard can only serve to enrich the oxygen and maybe even reduce urban heat islands, which contribute to solar radiation absorption and, according to some, global warming [source: Rothstein].

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about advertising and environmentalism.


Frequently Answered Questions

How do changing billboards work?
The most common type of changing billboard is the rotating billboard. It consists of a large, vertical cylinder with four or six faces. The cylinder is mounted on a pedestal and can rotate 360 degrees. The faces of the cylinder are made of vinyl or other durable material and are printed with the ads.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Alter, Lloyd. "Billboard Made of Lettuce Grows On You." TreeHugger. June 12, 2008. (April 8, 2009)
  • Alter, Lloyd. "Living Billboard." TreeHugger. April 27, 2005. (April 8, 2009)
  • Alter, Lloyd. "Message Trumps Medium: Five Sort Of Green Billboards." TreeHugger. April 16, 2008. (April 8, 2009)
  • "Garden Spots." International Design Awards. 2008. (April 8, 2009)
  • Gruber, Ben. "'Green' billboard ready to light up Times Square." Reuters. Jan. 9, 2009. (April 8, 2009)
  • Larson, Debra Levey. "U of I Horticulturist Grows a Billboard Salad." Aces News. Oct. 8, 2007. (April 8, 2009)
  • Rothstein, Greg. "Green roof gambit: How plant-covered rooftops will defend cities against global warming." Columbia News Service. April 15, 2008.