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If ad man Steve Eichenbaum had to choose his favorite Koss billboard, it would probably be the image of a Picasso-styled abstract painting with just a one-word caption: “Pikosso.” But there have been so many memorable ones over the years: “Rock Music,” with two of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore wearing Koss headphones; “Music Buff,” with Lady Godiva wearing the accessories over her golden curls; and “Rebel With A Koss,” with James Dean suddenly happy and headphoned.
According to company CEO and President Michael J. Koss, the billboard that sits beside I-43 in Glendale was first put up around 1970, though even he isn’t positive about the date. At first, it displayed just a picture of a bright yellow smiley face with the question, “Ever wonder why he’s smiling?”
The punch line came a few weeks later, when a set of Koss headphones was added to the face. It was the beginning of about four decades of funny, punny billboards – switched every few months – that Milwaukeeans quickly came to love. Everybody wanted to get their pun used. So many sent in their ideas for the iconic billboard that the company no longer opens the letters.
“The letter policy is protection in the event somebody comes along and says that was my idea,” says Eichenbaum, whose ad agency, Eichenbaum & Associates, is in charge of the billboards. “I have a file of ideas that stretches back over 20 years, so it’s only a matter of time until somebody comes up with something that’s close.”
Another reason they stopped opening the letters, says Koss, is the ideas coming in were almost all repeats. “We’ve covered every word with Koss in the middle, beginning or end,” says Eichenbaum. “Or any word that sounds like Koss.”
That would include classics like “Santa Kossing,” “Kosstraining” (featuring a buff athlete), “Tchaikossky” (picturing the Russian composer wearing a headset) and “Double Kosser,” which used the combative Mad Magazine “Spy vs. Spy” characters.
Eichenbaum, by the way, is a relative newcomer to the process, having taken over the campaign in 1987 from Milwaukee agency Kloppenburg Switzer Teich, the original brains behind the clever billboards.
More than a hundred billboards later, enough to justify a past exhibit at Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design, coming up with new ideas has become pretty difficult.
“We want the ads to be the sort of thing people talk about by the water cooler,” Eichenbaum says. Often, his team mines pop culture for ideas. A good example is the 1990’s “Leader of the Pack” billboard that featured Brett Favre.
“We actually wanted to use Mike Holmgren, but he turned us down,” Eichenbaum recalls. “Then a year later, we got a call from Brett’s manager right after he got out of the hospital due to his Vicodin addiction. At the time, no other advertisers would touch him, so we were able to make a deal come together fast. We only paid a fraction of what we would have later. It was a great deal.”
Despite the billboard’s popularity, Koss insists it’s not intended to directly drive sales. “You may have noticed the billboard never tries to tell you to go out and buy Koss headphones,” he says. “Its purpose is to demark the property and indicate quality of the product.”
The result has been to increase the value of the billboard.
“They have been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for that ad space,” Eichenbaum says. “When they sold some of their land to Home Depot, part of the deal was that Home Depot had to give an easement to keep the billboard up.”
The billboard’s visuals are just as important as the text. Although the use of photographic vinyls has replaced hand-painted artwork, it is still a complex
process to go from the drawing board to the canvas above I-43.
“I’d say a more challenging board like ‘Wrap Music’ [with a mummy-like character wearing headphones] takes about 70 hours of my time,” says Matt Zumbo, a local artist who has done some 50 boards since 1986. “However, it’s very fragmented, especially early in the process. You do something, send it off to see if you’re on the right track, and then wait for them to come back with some feedback.”
For a typical billboard, Eichenbaum first comes up with a headline. “They get sent up to Koss as thumbnail scribbles,” says Zumbo. “However, they understand each other enough that Koss can approve the concepts just seeing the headline without seeing a thumbnail.”
After approval, the concept will go to Zumbo or another artist to bring it to life. To accomplish this, no strategy is too outside the box.
“Last holiday season, we did a Scrooge character. I’ve got a friend who looks like he stepped out of another era, so I hired him as a model,” Zumbo recalls. “I wanted Scrooge to be illuminated by moonlight. Using the model allowed
me to get some interesting lighting, positions, poses and expressions. I combined all that stuff and altered it to fit the concept.”
Eichenbaum lauds the abilities of designers like Zumbo. “Those guys are some of the most talented artists I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It is not easy taking a small layout and making it look right up on the larger screen.”
In the days before computers, the process was even trickier. “The first half of my career, we did actual paintings on boards, and a very talented painter would repaint on the billboards 40 feet long,” Zumbo recalls. “That painter was always amazed at how small I could paint and I was always amazed at how big he could paint.”
Big indeed. Few local advertising campaigns have lasted so long or penned more puns. Surely, that gives us just Koss to induct the billboards into our Best Of Hall of Fame.
Steve Paske is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee. Write to him at letters@