How a car dealership ended up with hundreds of signs along North Carolina's interstates
Johnson Automotive doesn't just sponsor a little bit of highway. It bought up every sponsor-a-highway sign, one per mile, for ALL of I-40 east of Mebane. And that's not all. Why did they go so big?
I’ve driven on the stretch of I-40 between Raleigh and Wilmington dozens of times, and yet I’ve never noticed the thing that ESPN reporter and Rabbit Hole reader Ryan McGee pointed out to me last month:
You've probably already looked into this, but yesterday I made the Wilmington to Raleigh drive for the first time in years, like decades, and did you know that Johnson Lexus/Hyundai/Subaru has every single NCDOT Adopt-A-Highway marker bought on I-40, one per mile, both ways? What the hell? Did they stealthily figure out a way to advertise without paying for billboards? Does the Johnson family just really love clean highways? This has you written all over it. Happy 4th.
It does! And, oh man, HOW HAVE I NEVER NOTICED THIS? I, literally, was driving the same stretch of highway as Ryan at about the same time, and each sign drifted past my blissfully ignorant eyes. A few weeks back, I enlisted my mother-in-law to fact check this. It’s true, she said. The signs go all the way to Mebane. Mebane!
Some say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people that he didn’t exist. But I say the greatest trick a chain of car dealerships ever pulled was to place a sign every mile along 150 miles of interstate without me realizing it.
In fact, this may be the rare ad that is so ubiquitous that it flies under the radar. I took a spin around social media, and if this was, in fact, A Thing, then you’d figure that people would be out there dunkin’ on it. But a few tweets like this were the only ones I could find:
Repetition in road sign advertising is not exactly a new thing. Burma-Shave, a long dead shaving cream company, created quippy little poems with a series of roadside signs. More recently, though, a few tourist-trappy attractions have been able to draw people in with a series of billboards, and I hate to say: It works. As a kid, we HAD to stop at Wall Drug after seeing billboards for hundreds of miles during a long drive across South Dakota. It, predictably, did not live up to the hype. Closer to home, anyone who’s driven across the Carolinas on I-95 is very much aware of South of the Border. I’ve somehow never been to JR Cigar in Burlington or Selma despite miles worth of billboards. I have, however, veered off to see exotic destinations like the Neuse Sport Shop in Kinston (a store strategically located “a bladder’s distance from Raleigh”) and the Nahunta Pork Center (it’s a supermarket… OF PORK).
Still, though, those are billboards, of which there are dozens. But when it comes to the Johnson sponsor-a-highway signs, there are, literally, hundreds of them, and not just on I-40. Just get a load of this graphic from Johnson’s website:
It turns out, that map is outdated. Johnson Automotive went out and sponsored EVEN MORE MILES OF HIGHWAY, and is now up to 1,196 roadside signs.
“When we do something, we go all in on it,” Erick Kirks, Johnson’s marketing director, told me.
Basically, this happened for two reasons. One: Billboards aren’t as plentiful as you might think. For years, Johnson bought up ten in a row on a stretch of U.S. 70 between Havelock and New Bern. The ads on them were identical. When people would ask Kirks why he did that, his response was always: “Well, you’re asking me about them, aren’t you?”
But in other places, billboards are becoming more scarce. Several cities, including Raleigh, heavily regulate where they can go, what size they can be, and so on. Other cities, like Cary, have none. The anti-billboard movement has been afoot for decades. In 2019, a bill that would have made them easier to build and move was vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper. Everybody wants them to go away.
Except, maybe, advertisers. Johnson Automotive goes heavy on digital ads, and does some radio and print advertising. “We don’t do TV ads,” Kirks says. “Car commercials are stupid anyways. That’s not how we roll.” Still, advertising is key. Years ago, when Johnson wanted to open another dealership in Durham, they talked about how to spread the word. “We looked at buying billboards near I-40,” Kirks says, “but we didn’t think it would be enough.”
That’s when he got a big idea. What if Johnson Automotive would sponsor a highway? Not a highway, per se. But, like, every highway they could? That way, the Johnson logo would be out there, every mile, on every major freeway in the eastern part of the state. “I talked with Mr. Johnson (the owner),” Kirks says. “I said ‘let’s talk about buying up all the signs.’”
So, they did.
Johnson’s quest for sponsor-a-highway domination started in 2016 when they started buying up signs on roads around Raleigh. Then two years ago, they scooped up every available sign on I-40 between Raleigh and Wilmington. I-540 and I-795 have no billboards. But they do have sponsor-a-highway signs. Johnson has all of them too. The signs stop at Mebane, because car dealers don’t advertise in each other’s territories. But Johnson Lexus’s signs hey go east all the way to the coast, because there’s no other Lexus dealer on the coastal side of Raleigh. Plus, whenever a new stretch of road opens and new sponsor-a-highway signs go up, Johnson gets the right of first refusal. They’re now, by far, the largest single buyer of sponsor-a-highway signs in the country.
All of this costs Johnson and its 11 dealerships more than $2 million a year. “It’s not an insignificant part of our ad budget,” Kirks says.
And you know what all that that gets them? Yelled at, that’s what.
At this point, the dealership would kindly ask you to stop calling it to go out and clean up the litter since, well, they pay someone else to do that.
So here’s a subtle difference: Adopt-a-highway1 means you (probably) have to go out and clean up a stretch of highway four times a year. SPONSOR-a-highway entails hiring one of two companies to go out and do it for you. Change a word and let someone else get after it! People, however, don’t pick up on the nuance. “Some people say it’s overkill. But they don’t know it’s actually litter control,” says Kirks. “Once I call back and explain, people who complain go from hating us to loving us.”
There’s plenty of litter to go around. In all, 13.1 million pounds of roadside trash were picked up statewide last year. That’s a record, says NCDOT spokesman Harris Kay.2 The cost: more than $19 millon dollars. Hence, it’s a good thing if you can get someone else to pay for a big chunk of that. (NCDOT never actually handles the money from Johnson—it goes directly to the contractor—but they do make the signs with the sponsor’s logos.) “We put out money where our mouth is,” Kirks says. It’s a service and, for Kirks, a second piece of his position. Not only does he work with the contractor, but he’s also educating people on the importance of, say, not leaving trash in the bed of your truck that’ll go flying out when you hit the highway. “I have this trash guy job now,” he says.
Bottom line: The money gets paid, the trash gets picked up, and Johnson Automotive’s logo gets eyeballs on it along every mile of every major highway between suburban Raleigh and Wilmington. “It’s how advertising works,” Kirks says. “It’s about impressions. You see our signs all over. When you think of a brand (Lexus, Subaru, Hyundai), you think of us.”
You may have noticed one Johnson sign. Or several. Now you’re going to notice every damn one. “Once you see it,” Kirks says, “you can never unsee it.”
If you would like to do this, the state has an enticingly-named Litter Management Map where you can see what stretches of highway are adoptable.
About that. Kay says there was more far trash out there in 2021 because NCDOT and volunteers picked up less of it in 2020. For that, blame pandemic working conditions, and budget cuts caused by a drop in gasoline taxes when people were driving far less.