Photo by Ryan Tir.

Watch one episode of Mad Men and you’ll see just how shady the advertising biz can be. But apparently the red-headed stepchildren of the advertising industry — outdoor billboard companies — are taking douchebaggery to new lows. An investigative report from Fair Warning details how billboard agencies illegally chop down trees to ensure that potential viewers get unobstructed looks at their signage. Don Draper’s womanizing and debauchery isn’t looking so bad now, eh?

Take Robert J. Barnhart, a former employee of Lamar Advertising Company, the largest outdoor billboard company in America. When trees got in the way of the company’s Tallahassee, Fla., signs, Barnhart says his boss instructed him to kill them off using a mega-lethal herbicide. When Barnhart said he’d no longer act as a tree hit-man, Lamar gave him the axe. Barnhart’s allegations are backed up by his former supervisor, and they’re part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

And apparently Barnhart’s tale is just one in an industry that’s rife with illicit tree removal.

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As long as there have been billboards, trees have been getting in the way. And billboard companies have been removing them — sometimes legally, sometimes not. News archives are replete with accounts of mysterious tree disappearances near billboard sites. Usually, no one gets caught, due to lack of evidence or to officials failing to aggressively pursue those responsible. Fewer trees means more viewing time for motorists, and more money for billboard operators. A 500-foot clearance in front of a sign creates more than five seconds of viewing time for a motorist going 60 mph.

Indeed, tree stumps have been spotted in suspiciously close proximity to billboards in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and many other states. Dan Freeman, an official with California’s Department of Transportation, says Southern California is the latest region to be slammed by illegal tree slayings.

“The billboard industry — well, my impression of them is they’re kind of lawless,” said Freeman, Caltrans’ deputy director of maintenance for Los Angeles and Ventura counties. “They pretty much do whatever they want.”

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“We’ve been victim a number of times to people who come in the middle of the night, with a chainsaw, and just kind of clear cut the area immediately in front of one of these supergraphics or a large billboard.”

Hello, Lorax? We need you, buddy — otherwise ad agencies are going to continue going all Once-ler on America’s trees.

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