Pit free market economics against Humboldt's soul-satisfying bay views and what happens?
Even beer loses.
Coors' "Silver Bullet Aluminum Pint," tossed out there in front of the eyeballs of southbound drivers on Highway 101, took the dubious top honor in the North Coast Journal's Ugliest Billboard Contest this week, snagging 12 percent of the votes.
"It's ugly and there are much better beer options," huffed one voter. "It blocks the view of the cows," wrote another.
When it comes to fielding bad press, though, Coors is slick. At home with a cold, Miller Coors spokeswoman Karina Diehl thought for about two seconds, and then offered, "I absolutely don't think our billboards are ugly ... (pause) ... but I totally respect the opinion of your readers."
Feel better now?
While we'd hoped the contest might start a conversation about how some of Humboldt's prettiest roadways could look, we also tapped into a seething undercurrent of graphic design critique.
Take heed, future billboard creators, because Humboldt does not like "eyeball searing colors," busy designs, giant people or that little lower case i so ubiquitous in front of certain phones and pods. Some of us are picky about typefaces, slamming signage with a dismissive: "It's big. It's ugly. And I don't like the font."
Many voters were happy to just blast ‘em all: "I HATE HATE the signs on the bay," one wrote.
Not that we'd generally want to encourage any haters out there, but oh, you billboard haters, you are not alone. From Arcata City Council members to the North Coast Railroad Authority board, lots of Humboldt heavy hitters have tried for years to get rid of the billboards lining Hwy. 101, intruding on shoreline and pastures. Mostly, they've failed.
Some signs are protected by legal settlements, and others with murkier provenance are fighting hard to stay anyway. (Stay tuned next month for the latest tussle over two that Caltrans wants gone.)
Meanwhile, even some of the business owners who rely on them are ambivalent.
"I don't particularly like billboards myself; I've got to be honest," said Trevor Harper, general manager of Harper Motors. His dealership shares with Mid-City Motor World the billboard that came in second-ugliest, with 10 percent of the vote. The thing is, say members of the family that owns both businesses, if the car dealers don't use them, someone else will.
"Those are CBS boards," said Trevor Harper's father Dan Harper, president and general manager at Mid-City. "They're owned by the CBS media corporation. They're going to be there. ... If they're there, I'm inclined to use them because they do help the business."
If he actually owned the billboard, the elder Harper said, he'd consider taking it down. And for the voters who complained that this particular sign was just too cluttered looking, with all those logos? Dan Harper is listening.
"I'm open to input on what people would like to have on there, as far as design goes," he said.
On the bright side, billboard haters had a warmer spot for the dealerships' little free carousel directional sign, on the other side of the highway. Voters who stopped short of "they're all ugly" and actually singled out the worst offenders -- whether because of the view they blocked or the images they bore -- spared just four of our 31 contestants: Harley-Davidson and the Bear River Casino on the bay side of the road, and a 4-H sign and the auto dealers' carousel sign on the land side.
The 4-H'ers had some indignant defenders -- (Note to future NCJers: Never come between a youngster and a baby farm animal). A hand-painted sign, they chided us. With donated materials, they said. Where was our heart?
Almost as doting were supporters of the not-quite-billboard-backside of the long defunct Midway drive-in.
With 8 percent of the vote, it came in as third-ugliest along our chosen stretch of 101. But its fans were loyal.
"Wabi-sabi," one called it. "So old and ugly it's kinda cool."
The old theater screen sits on property now owned by Jay Bahner, who runs J's RV Center.
"I left that screen up there for nostalgia," he said, although it's also a handy landmark when he's directing people to his business. "I get comments all the time about how people like it, and it's a landmark in this county."
The metal in the old movie screen is valuable, Bahner said, and he's had offers from people who'd gladly disassemble it. He's not ready for that.
"I like the screen. It still stands up to the storms and the weather. If that drive-in screen could talk, believe me, it would be full of stories ... children that have been conceived and probably relationships that have been split up."
The impermanent and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi.