The Story Behind Koss Headphones' 'Uniformly Witty' Billboards

Feb 16, 2018

Pikosso, Chicken a la Koss, Rebel with a Koss. If you’re familiar with the iconic billboard for Koss Corporation along I-43 in Milwaukee, you may have seen one of these ads -- or even have a favorite design or catchphrase of your own.

For this week’s Bubbler Talk, listener Michael Croatt wanted to know more.

"There’s a billboard...just south of Hampton and I’ve always been intrigued by it. And I was wondering is it done by an ad agency, is it done by an in-house person?”

Three of Koss' iconic billboards.
Credit Koss Corporation

Michael Koss, chairman and CEO of the Koss Corporation, says it all began with a yellow smiley face back in 1972.

"The headline was, ‘Ever wonder why he’s smiling?’ And people didn’t know who owned the billboard, they didn’t know what the billboard was all about," Koss explains. "After about two weeks, the Koss stereophones were put on the smiley face... and that’s how it started.”

Credit Koss Corporation

Since that first billboard, over 100 designs have captured the attention of drivers on I-43. Croatt, a lifelong Milwaukee resident, says he’s noticed two things about them throughout the years: “I think first of all, that they’ve always been very well designed. And second of all, they’ve been uniformly witty."

So how does a finished design like The World's Quietest Music Festival or Kossfit get up on the billboard?

Credit Koss / facebook.com

The Milwaukee ad agency Koppenburg, Switzer & Teich helped launch the campaign, according to Koss. “They were very, very instrumental in putting that billboard campaign together at the time, and it ended up rolling out across the country."

Koss billboard pencil sketches by Matt Zumbo.
Credit Image courtesy of Matt Zumbo

In fact, Koss himself used to work for the agency and developed some of the billboards, such as Lettuce Entertain You, Happy New (Y)Ears, Besty Koss and Father Knows Best (featuring a priest, as well as George Washington in a later design).

The ad agency Eichenbaum and Associates carried on the tradition of creating concepts built around either an image with headphones, a common phrase or a play on words, until its closure in January of 2017. Today, an art director works with an independent artist (who you'll meet later in the story) to create the designs.

However, Koss says the billboard was never about selling headphones.

“You’ll never see a board that says ‘Buy something,’ or some sort of call to action in that way because that’s not what that board is for," he says. "It’s really set up there to help mark the property, to identify us, to establish the brand. It’s a fun product and it’s something that’s grown on people – they’ve fallen in love with the board.”

The billboards used to be hand painted, but now the images are generated by ink jet printers on vinyl and installed around the country. Here in Milwaukee, we get to see a new billboard more frequently - about every four months.

“These people that did these boards, they’re very, very, very creative people and they always took the time to make it something special – and it always was something special. And it’s touched a lot of hearts here in Milwaukee,” says Koss.

Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Currently, the Koss billboard features Mark Antony and his famous Friends, Romans, Countrymen... speech, illustrated by artist Matt Zumbo. He’s been responsible for over 60 Koss billboards since 1986, and while it's his illustrations you see up on the billboard, Zumbo says the end product is the result of a huge team effort.

Matt Zumbo stands next to one of his favorite billboard design: "Game of Phones."
Credit Image courtesy of Matt Zumbo

“I’m not, in this case, concepting, I’m problem solving," he says. "We’d go down a certain path and then it’s my job to hopefully bring it to life and make it be all that it can be.”

Zumbo adds, "Most of the process was myself and the art director (Jerry Hayes), and in fact, the art directors on that account over the 34 years were really a 'who's who' of the best in Milwaukee."

Credit Image courtesy of Matt Zumbo

Each billboard design can take up to 65 hours to complete. To create the graphics, Zumbo uses everything from traditional pencil and paper, acrylic paints, airbrushes, to tablets and computers today. 

“Still to this day, if I have time, some of the best results are always a blend of traditional drawing, which is scanned in and worked over, and ultimately a digital piece at the end,” he explains.

After all these years, Zumbo’s illustrations are a key part of what makes the Koss billboards so iconic, and he says he's proud to drive by and see his work tower above the highway.

“It’s terrific! Of course, it’s one more reason to spend time on it and do a good job because you don’t want to drive by and see something that 'ya screwed up. But really, honestly, for a commercial artist and illustrator it’s got to be the best opportunity, the best job in this area to work on.”

The next two years of the billboard’s schedule are already booked with designs, so we can all look forward to what’s next.

Credit Koss Corporation

Michael Koss says that the billboard has been a special connection to the Milwaukee community. “People feel like they own the board," he jokes. "We do have a pretty active running commentary from the community about what should go up next and ideas and, 'Oh this would be great.”

Question asker Michael Croatt adds, “I've always enjoyed them and I'm always looking for the new one. You never drive by without lookin’!”

But don’t forget: Driving with headphones is illegal in Wisconsin – even if they’re Koss.

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