Andersen: Replace the airport billboards |

Andersen: Replace the airport billboards

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

One of the first things you see at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport when you step off a plane is the mountains. Walking to the terminal, sniffing the mountain air, the typical visitor knows they have arrived in Aspen. They feel a unique sense of place from the surroundings.

Step inside the terminal, however, and our “guests” fall prey to a sterile, commercial blitz. Walls of advertising greet visitors with come-ons for Rolex, real estate, Audi and more.

Is Aspen a mountain community with a rich history surrounded by the wonders of nature? Or are we Armani of Aspen, Prada of Pitkin and Rolex of the Roaring Fork?

In a recent letter to the county commissioners, John McBride lamented the commercialized “Howdy!” experienced at the airport. McBride equates the backlit, flashy signs with highway billboards.

Aspen and Pitkin County were enlightened enough to ban billboards decades ago in order to protect cherished views of the mountains from commercial blinders.

“How ironic,” McBride wrote, “how contradictory that the same county that implemented this measure allows billboard advertising throughout one public space — their own county airport. They are everywhere in the airport — some 10 feet by 20 feet, some flashing, changing messages — selling cars, jewelry, houses, condos, etc., etc.

“It is, I believe, a double standard for the county to stop billboard advertising visible from all public roads only to have it throughout their own public airport.”

McBride makes an excellent point. Not only do airport ads create a visual context of commercialism; they also form a blatant first impression to our guests. Billboards in our airport are meant to target tourists. As soon as they step off the plane, our resort guests are hit with a commercialized message that Aspen is for sale.

Under this arrangement, Aspen is less a community than it is a commodity. The message is money — about spending oodles of it on conspicuous consumption. Tourists become marks. Aspen is cheapened.

Were these ads promoting local, cottage-industry businesses, then some promotion would be valid to share products that contain local flavor. But the current ads are high-end, generic and ubiquitous. They are seen everywhere, worldwide. There is nothing local about them.

McBride suggested something different. Instead of greeting arrivals with commercialized sales pitches, how about providing displays that describe the character of our community, the nature of our environment, the history of our region and the sense of place we hope visitors latch onto?

“Instead of commercialism,” McBride wrote, “wouldn’t it be great if our airport walls were covered with photos from the past — a museum of our own unique history?

“There could be an area of mining and ranching from the turn of the last century. There could be an exhibit on skiing and the music tent and the Aspen Institute. Perhaps the Discovery Center could have an area. And our music background, instead of playing hip-hop or rock, could feature actual recordings from the music tent or from Jazz Aspen.”

How do generic ads for high-end products enrich the visitor experience? Not at all. They water down local color by pandering to consumerism. They neglect the values of the community, which could be highlighted through artful displays from the Aspen Historical Society, displays that also can strike a sense of pride for locals.

Aspen is a beautiful place because of the mountains and the community. Every time I step off a plane, I want to kiss the ground in gratitude for this place, only to shade my eyes from the displays of consumption once I’m inside the terminal.

Billboards block views with dubious commercial banners. Let’s not block the views of the heart and soul of Aspen for visitors and locals by confronting them with indoor billboards. More thoughtful, artful displays may actually inspire with depictions of the nature and culture of our beautiful setting and our richly endowed valley.

“The airport could become a place to be proud of,” McBride summed up, “not just another marketing maze. God knows we have enough of that everywhere else.”

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached by email at