Billboards try to make light of recession gloom

Image: recession billboard
The campaign began in June and is now appearing on more than 1,000 billboards across America.Elise Amendola / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Interesting fact about recessions ... they end." "Self worth is greater than net worth." "This will end long before those who caused it are paroled."

Those are a few of the messages drivers in Rhode Island and across the country are seeing as part of a billboard campaign dubbed "Recession 101" and funded by an anonymous East Coast donor who was depressed about how the country was reacting to the economy's tailspin.

The campaign began in June and is now appearing on more than 1,000 billboards across America, including a spot in New York's Times Square. The client wanted people to realize the country has been undergone recessions before and made it through, said designer Charlie Robb.

"One of the lines is, 'Stop obsessing about economy, you're scaring the children.' That's the overriding concept of the thing," said Robb, founding director of the Florida-based Charchin Creative.

Members of the Outdoor Advertising Agency of America have donated the space, printing materials and labor needed for the campaign, said agency spokesman Jeff Golimowski.

Some in hard-hit Rhode Island say it's hard to put a lighthearted spin on the downturn when people are worried about losing their jobs and homes, while others share the billboards' sentiments.

"History has proven that we get into recessions and we get out of them," said 41-year-old Paul Sullivan, who works at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. "Whether it's perception or reality, we have to think this too shall pass."

Leonard Lardaro, an economist with the University of Rhode Island, said people shouldn't lose hope in a crisis and should instead look for opportunity, preparing themselves for other jobs or the economy's eventual turnaround.

"For people who are very capable and talented who lost their jobs, it wears away at you. It takes away your sense of worth, which it shouldn't do," Lardaro said. "Don't think in a recession that nothing good can or does happen."

Lardaro said that he likes the posters but that they aren't enough to fix people's spirits — and the recession — by themselves.

"This person might need to have those signs posted in Rhode Island a lot longer than other states," he said. The state's 12.1 percent unemployment rate in May tied with South Carolina for third-highest in the country, and behind only Michigan and Oregon — all of which are also getting the billboards.

Gail Robnett, a 53-year-old from Exeter, said she doesn't know anyone unaffected by the recession and wonders about the campaign's effectiveness.

"You're not paying attention to stuff like that when you're trying to put groceries on the table," she said.

Robb — who also designed the "God Speaks" billboards from 1999 that featured such insights as "Keep using my name in vain and I'll make rush hour longer" — said he understands that perspective.

"If you just lost your job and your house, this campaign is not going to do a thing for you. That's a whole different set of parameters," he said. "If you're like most of America, you've still got a job and you're making your mortgage payment. You may not be spending what you normally spend because you're afraid of what's going on."

Mostly, Robb said, the messages are to remind people of the country's resiliency and optimism. For example, the billboard that 24-year-old Ryan Korsak saw said, "Bill Gates started Microsoft in a recession."

"I appreciate the sentiment," said Korsak, who works for a Providence software company. "But I'm kind of not Bill Gates."