Driving across the middle of the country, you see billboards everywhere, for things like diners, casinos and adult bookstores. The sign advertising industry is actually worth $7 billion dollars nationwide.
Missouri averages three billboards per mile – more than any of its neighboring states. But when you get to Hatton, Missouri, there’s one sign that’s not like the others. It’s sandwiched between an ad for a strip club and an ad for more billboards in the middle of a muddy soybean field.
The billboard was designed by artist Kim Beck. It has the words “next exit” written in cloud letters gainst a blue backdrop. The background of the sign bleeds into the actual sky today. There are no logos or branding identification on the artwork.
The billboard towers above Anne Thompson, who teaches art at the University of Missouri. This piece is part of her I-70 Sign Show public art project. Thompson says this sign is meant to subtly confront billboards that ask drivers if they are going to heaven or hell.
“I think the words ‘next exit’ are probably the most [commonly found] along the interstate,” she says. “But when you see them written in clouds as this kind of displaced piece of sky in the sky, it takes on a different kind of poetic meaning, like where is your next exit?”
She picked six artists to create pieces that compete in the shouting match of anti-abortion, gun-rights and political campaign signage along the highway. One piece shows the words “blah blah blah” scrawled across the billboard that tackles the confusion of language. Another sign has the word “Blurred” written half in blue and half in red as a comment on the divided politics of Missouri.
More than 45,000 cars cruise I-70 each day with the chance to catch the socially engaging art. In a city like Chicago, a sign might run you thousands of dollars a month. Here in rural Missouri? It’s only about $900.
One sign has caught the attention of Jessica Baran, the director of the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts in St. Louis.
“To have a large, powerful, very assertive African American female figure flanking the exit that’s leading to where the recent unrest in Ferguson has taken place, certainly has a psychic value,” she said.
Indeed, Thompson says when that sign by artist Mickalene Thomas moved from a soy bean field to five miles from where Michael Brown was shot, the conversation changed from gender politics to race politics.
Ultimately, Thompson says she hopes the project continues stirring up more conversations about contentious issues seen from the road.
The Costco and American Express partnership, which is ending at the end of March, was just one example of what credit card companies are doing more of these days.
American Express offered an official Costco card and had been the only credit card you could use to buy stuff at the retailer, which posted $110 billion in revenues for fiscal year 2014.
Their partnership was a co-branding arrangement. Such arrangements have become more common, says Jason Arnold of RBC, and offer loyalty programs such as airline miles or cash-back cards. These arrangements are alluring to risk-averse credit issuers, says Arnold, because they are less likely to result in delinquencies.
"If a card-member wants to keep their rewards, they typically have to pay their card on time," Arnold says.
Since the Great Recession, banks have been increasingly employing co-branding agreements to stand out from the competition, instead of competing with each other on lower interest rates, says Arnold.
Co-branding partnerships can encourage spending. American Express says 20 percent of its monthly outstanding balances are on its Costco cards. And, 70 percent of the money people spend on those cards, isn't even spent at Costco, according to the company.
Customers have been using the cards for other purchases, too.
Sameer Gokhale, who tracks the banking industry at Janney Capital Markets, says co-branding gives credit card companies a captive customer base.
"You have this one merchant. You have customers loyal to this one merchant," says Gokhale, "In this case it was Costco."
But he adds that it probably did not make sense for AmEx to retain the partnership under the terms which he thinks Costco was asking: accepting lower fees for point-of-sale transactions at Costco stores.
For its part, American Express says it will try to hold onto its many Costco credit card customers by offering them other AmEx cards. It also plans to ramp up spending on marketing.
Today, we kick off From the Hills to the Valley, our series on what divides Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and what pulls them closer? We are going to talk about a lot of different things - from creativity and fame to piracy and lobbying - but we begin with how Hollywood sees and, therefore, represents Silicon Valley.
Black Mirror, Wortham says, is an un-Hollywood version of how technology is changing our lives. She thinks one reasons it’s difficult for hollywood to represent silicon valley is that people “sitting behind screens,” is rather “boring and hard to illustrate.”
What about The Social Network? “It was great,” she says, “but you couldn’t get away from scenes of Jesse Eisenberg furiously coding. How do you make that sexy?”
Wortham isn’t sure Hollywood could have made a series like Black Mirror.
“I don't know that those narratives are very popular here," she says. “When we do dystopian narratives they tend to focus on collapse of civilization or a zombie virus outbreak. Not necessarily computers have gone haywire and they are coming for us.”
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