During the COVID-19 outbreak, you hear a lot of talk about another pandemic that happened more than a century ago. Back in 1918 (no, not 1917), it was the Spanish Flu, a breakout that killed nearly 700,000 Americans, and millions all over the planet.
Compared to people living during that time, we've made tremendous advances in both technology and mass media. Back then, they essentially had print – newspapers and magazines – as well as the telegraph to get important messages throughout the country and around the globe. In fact, many experts say early 20th century technology was part of the reason why that virulent flu could not easily be contained.
Here we are more than 100 years later and thanks to the Internet, cable news, and social media, we can easily connect with millions – no, make that billions – with a simple keystroke or two. As for business, we're busily sending emails to our co-workers and clients, while connecting with each other in Zoom meetings or on group apps like Slack. We can find some humor in the pandemic on Netflix or TikTok. And when things get really boring, we can amuse ourselves with video games. Or watch Tiger King.
But one of the interesting offshoots of the pandemic is how many people are killing time with old school pleasures – playing classic board games like “Monopoly” or “Risk,” and of course, a challenging jigsaw puzzle.
And while we now have sophisticated, efficient ways of communicating messages all over social media, through videos, photo montages, and posts, it's fascinating how a timeless medium has made a comeback:
The lawn sign
It's never gone totally out of style. Politicians have used this communications medium since time immemorial to help emblazon candidate names into our brains, ensuring that when it's time to vote, constituents will make the right choice.
But since the outbreaks, lawn signs have become an even more popular way to deliver a message – whether it's shining the light on a 2020 graduate (of schools at any level), a thanks to first responders and others who have made sacrifices for the rest of us, or of course, statements about our politics, our values, and what we stand for.
I was reminded of just how popular this traditional form of mass communications has become when I received my daily Groupon email last week with the usual offers of things I have no interest in purchasing. And there it was – an offer to buy a magnetic lawn sign (not sure why a sign with an attracting force is an attractive quality) for the low low price of $9 (note the garden stake is not included).
And while infinitely more people would see a message on Facebook or Instagram, there is something more local, one-to-one, and connected with our homes to help us make a bold or proud statement on our front lawns.
For the montage of signs you see at the top of this blog post, I simply walked around my neighborhood over the holiday weekend for a mile or two. It wasn't the least bit difficult to spot an array of signs, with all sorts of personal messaging.
At a time when many people don't feel heard, there's always the act of communicating something important by displaying it in front of their most expensive and cherished possessions – their homes, condos, or apartments.
Even local municipalities and cities are getting in on the act. Here in suburban Detroit, Ferndale (once known as “Funky Ferndale”) just north of the legendary 8 Mile Road is using signs displaying memorable song lyrics to help get their social distancing message across. Ferndale, by and large, is a walking town, so placing these signs on lawns and street corners gets their point across efficiently, but with missives more interesting and catchy than simply asking for the order.
Based on what we saw on TV over this past weekend, Ferndale might want to share this campaign with any number of communities in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Lake of the Ozarks, and other communities where residents have somehow forgotten everything they're learned during the past ten weeks.
Perhaps that's why smart radio stations all over the U.S. have invested modest dollars but considerable time helping send important messages, especially about local frontline heroes or reminders about face masks, social distancing, and other safe behavior as the “Grand RE-Opening” rolls out. Rock 107 in Scranton, PA, gets the message – and is now delivering it via electronic billboards their parent company owns.
Here in Detroit, Mojo in the Morning on Q95 was an early adopter. And our client, WMMR in Philly, got the ball rolling as Preston & Steve made visiting first responders their personal mission, bestowing lawn signs and making hard working professionals feel a little better about their sacrifices.
And local icon Pierre Robert got in on the act – literally. Dressed to the elevens, the tie-dyed cosmic surgeon made numerous stops around the Philadelphia area, surprising (OK, maybe shocking) several front line workers, leaving lawn signs to honor their contribution.
It's one thing to have the signage – what seals the deal is a personal appearance, kind words, and the spectacle of an appearance by a beloved personality.
Keep in mind Pierre has been around longer than a couple of triple mochas, his favorite coffee drink. Next year, he celebrates his 40th birthday on WMMR – which will make him one of the longest running radio personalities wearing the same uniform for four decades. And yet he's personally visiting front liners, placing signs on their lawns.
It's one thing to have an important message – it's another to deliver it with charm, style, and impact.
Or perhaps better put, it's not just about creating great content – it's about smart distribution.
It takes work to get a message across in a marketplace (just ask a local politician), but with lawn signs, the price is right, especially when compared to the expense of shooting and airing a TV spot or running big billboards all over town. In a market the size of Philadelphia, it's a challenge. But in smaller burgs, it's easier to blanket a community with lawn signs with a message. This is an advantage for stations licensed to communities like Scranton, Salinas, or Saginaw.
We continue to see vestiges of our old analog lives returning as COVID-19 warps our lives. Lawn signs are another indication people have stories to tell, have a need to express themselves, and want to honor those who may not always get credit for their accomplishments.
But here's the thing about those lowly lawn signs. They may be the simplest form of communication, but they grab our attention, we read them, and they move us to either take action or to acknowledge someone's message.
As the late, great Nick Michaels always reminded us,
“In the over-communicated world, a whisper becomes a scream.”
And he knew how to deliver a message with impact.
A lot of people are whispering out there and they're being heard.
What message do you want to communicate? There's plenty of lawn to go around.
Thanks, Bill Jacobs.