SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's lieutenant governor may have learned a lesson from a U.S. president who's been dead for nearly two centuries: Billboards can make you famous.
Dozens of billboards proclaiming William Harrison as the ninth president of the United States have been on display in Utah in recent weeks. They've been up longer than Harrison occupied the White House.
Harrison served just 32 days before dying of pneumonia in 1841. The billboards have been up for about two months, no doubt mystifying hundreds of thousands of Utahns who see the big signs daily.
The explanation? They're being used to study the effectiveness of billboard advertising. The billboards boosted the profile of the late President Harrison, making him far better known than Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
"Billboards are very good for creating awareness," said Ken Foster, a University of Utah adjunct professor of communication who is conducting the project. "Thus, this is an awareness study."
Harrison's short tenure in office may partly explain why most Utahns simply didn't know who the ninth president was. At least that was the case two months ago when Foster began his initial survey.
When the Deseret News stopped pedestrians on the street and asked Foster's opening survey question — Can you name the ninth president of the United States? — Michael Jones gave the typical response: "I sure cannot."
Some passersby struggled to come up with a name.
"Is 'Adams' the last name?" Jeff Kaderli said. "Is it Samuel Adams?"
"Umm, I'm going to say Millard Fillmore, just for the heck of it," said Su Armitage.
Those answers echo what Foster learned in his first round of surveys before the billboards went up. His study found that only 1 percent of Utahns could name the ninth president.
The point of the billboard study was to answer this question: If people see something on a sign, will it stick to their brain? The Deseret News sidewalk survey confirmed that some people have learned from the billboards and retained the ninth president's name.
"Well, I've seen it on, I think, on the ads," said Fox Oxrud, of Salt Lake City. "Is it Harrison?"
Foster found that awareness of President Harrison's name jumped dramatically after the billboards went up. After one month, he conducted a second survey that showed the proportion of people who could name the ninth president jumped from 1 in 100 to better than 1 in 4.
"It is now 27.3 percent," Foster said, "after one month."
Sixty of the billboards are on display just along the Wasatch Front. Many more are visible in the rest of the state.
The campaign is designed so half the population of Utah sees one of the Harrison billboards at least once a day. The signs will stay up for about another month.
Since 1980, Foster has been hired repeatedly by Reagan Outdoor Advertising to do similar surveys. The company obviously wants to prove that billboards actually work.
"It's market research," Foster said. "It's intended to provide information to help sell billboards."
The latest survey not only showed that many people learned and remembered Harrison's name, it also showed that 7 percent of the survey respondents were motivated by the billboards to learn more about the former president.
"(That 7 percent) can actually name how many days he was in office," Foster said. "They actually went and looked up some information, probably at the website that's on the billboards."
The survey also confirms an unfortunate fact of Utah politics: Relatively few residents know the name of an important public official, Utah's lieutenant governor.
To do the surveys scientifically and ensure their accuracy, Foster always asks what's called a "control question." Because the answer is not on the billboard, the survey response on the control question should be, in theory, about the same before and after the billboard goes up.
Foster's control question: "Can you name the lieutenant governor of Utah?"
In the initial survey, 15.7 percent correctly named Cox. After the billboards were up for a month, the second survey showed what was expected: a roughly comparable number, 16.3 percent, answered the question correctly. That means just 1 in 6 Utahns knows the name of their own lieutenant governor.
"I think that's actually higher than lieutenant governors we've measured in the past," Foster said.
Cox himself laughed off the results.
"Well, first of all, I think that those numbers are wrong. They're far too high," he chuckled. "The people that I know, I don't think 16 percent of them could name the lieutenant governor."
Cox said he recognizes that many voters are just a little bit in the dark about certain important matters.
"A large percentage of millennials think that Judge Judy is a member of the Supreme Court," he said. "I think it goes to show that we're not as well-versed as we should be. And it's also part of the role of being the lieutenant governor. If people know who I am, I'm probably doing it wrong," he said with a smile.
When asked if he should try to get himself into the news more often, Cox said, "Well, apparently, I need to buy some billboards."