Perspective: In praise of Utah’s weird billboard culture

As baffled as any visitor might be by ‘Kolob runs on Domo,’ Utah’s billboards provide a crash course in the state’s alluring peculiarity

Utah’s billboards are, well, a lot of things. But they’re unmistakably ours.

While driving north on I-15 I passed a Domo billboard that read “Styx ripped us off.” It’s the latest in a long line of Domo billboards that have caused me to think, “Wait, what?!” and then spend the next three days pondering the “joke.” I am still trying to process the billboard that read, “Kolob runs on Domo.” 

But just imagine being an out-of-state driver unfamiliar with either the software company Domo or the Osmonds’ short-lived 1970s recording label: Kolob Records. 

While the Domo billboards are ubiquitous, they are not the only giant freeway advertisements to elicit a range of emotions in drivers. 

The Cavalia plague (too soon?) of 2016 brought a steady line of “white-horsed” images through the Wasatch corridor (perhaps in an effort to get a certain “white horse” to save our country from its political death spiral) but instead ended up leading to a ratio of one million jokes and roughly 14 ticket sales for the actual Cavalia circus show.

And then there was the Latter-day Saint millionaire’s search for a wife, which caused a national stir. But, I mean, what state doesn’t have a mysterious millionaire buying up billboards in an effort to get hitched?

And a number of other companies have taken a page from Domo’s playbook and built entire ad campaigns off of religious inside jokes. Homie had the infamous “The best change since 2 hour church” billboard right after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced formal weekly church meetings would be shaved by one hour. 

Drive down I-15 right now, and there’s a Blue Raven Solar billboard that reads “A Sunbeam! A Sunbeam!” 

The billboard simultaneously sells solar while paying homage to the years many of us spent as young churchgoers violently hopping out of our seats while singing Nellie Talbot’s classic, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”

Depending on the day and depending on the billboard, I find my personal reactions to these works of “art” ranging from a light chuckle to an annoyed eye roll or just outright embarrassment. 

I know I’m not alone. 

Indeed, I’m not even the first to write about Utah’s peculiar billboard practices. Some internet sleuthing on the topic uncovered a local writer from more than a decade ago who decried the eyesore of the state’s tall, obnoxious advertisements. 

Though I agree that many of our billboards are ugly and can sometimes detract from our state’s natural splendor, I think if I’m being completely honest, I’d miss them if they disappeared. 

My husband and I spent three years living in a Colorado suburb while he attended law school in Boulder. I-25 connected our town to Denver. The 25-minute drive was completely void of any advertisements, and every time I drove it, I became dangerously sleepy. With nothing to look at other than the long stretch of freeway and empty fields, there was no avoiding the highway hypnosis. 

Utah’s billboards are ugly, for sure, and there are too many of them. Some flirt with the line between church and commerce, or even sacrilege, but boy, it’s hard to hate something that keeps you amused. And dare I say even informed.

Every time I drive to and from work I learn where mortgage interest rates currently sit. I get up to speed on the gas and soda prices at Maverik. I know which tech companies are hiring (all of them, it seems) and how many sets of Color Scriptures have sold to date. I also know the current wait time at every ER, as though a billboard would impact which ER I went to in an actual emergency. (Just yesterday I drove past one advertising $399 MRIs. “No doctor order needed,” it read. Are people getting MRIs just for fun?)

I also know, at any given moment, which political group is upset with Mitt Romney and which group is grateful for Mitt Romney. And now I know which local university is more proud of having joined a sports conference with the number 12 after it.

And as baffled as any visitor might be by “Kolob runs on Domo,” Utah’s billboards provide a crash course (no dark pun intended) in Utah culture. Most of them are fun. 

Some, however, are cringe straight up and down — like, for example, the plastic surgeon who missed the mark by miles with his pileup of wordplay on temple remodeling. 

But, most of the time it’s two-hour church jokes, a lot of burger place slogans, a million tech startups, and enough essential oils to make the entire state smell of lavender and eucalyptus. Our billboards are a culture within a culture and also a microcosm of our place and people. 

They’re peculiar, and so are we. 

Meg Walter is the editor-in-chief of The Beehive and a Deseret News contributor.