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Digital Billboards: High-Tech Tools Or Driving Distractions?

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Digital billboard

Digital billboard

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Digital billboard in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Digital billboard in Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Digital billboards are commonplace in many parts of America. Though expensive to install -- around $200,000 to $300,000 a pop -- they're a solid investment for media companies and advertisers alike, and they offer benefits for the community, too. But a number of citizen groups see digital billboards as driving distractions, and they've worked hard to ban or limit installations in cities and states across the U.S.

Some organizations like Scenic America try to limit all types of billboards, arguing that every one of them is an ugly scar on the otherwise pristine face of America. According to such groups, digital billboards are even worse than their analog cousins because they force additional distractions like bright lights and changing ads on attention-deficient drivers who are already juggling cell phones, satnavs, mascara, and happy meals. Advocates have worked to implement bans or moratoriums on digital billboards across entire states (e.g. Maine, Montana) and in specific municipalities (e.g. Houston, Denver, St. Louis).

On the other side of the debate, ad outlets like Clear Channel Outdoor  and Lamar Advertising insist that there's no relationship between digital billboards and auto accidents. And advertisers appreciate the high-tech displays because of the improved access they offer. With traditional billboards, advertisers have to fight for location and visibility; if the particular billboard location that a company wants is taken by someone else, said company has to devise a Plan B. But because digital billboards allow for multiple ads -- rotating their displays every four to ten seconds --  advertisers have better access to premium locations. That's good for business.

Our take? Well, we understand and appreciate both arguments, but we tend to come down on the side of the billboard owners.

First and foremost, print media is dying a slow death. That includes not just newspapers, magazines, but also billboards. An increasing number of ads are delivered digitally, via email, mobile device, and on the web; digital billboards are just another example of that phenomenon. With only about 1,800 in operation, digital units make up just .4% of the total number of billboards found on America's roadways, but their numbers are increasing exponentially, and there's no sign of that figure slowing.

Second, it's hard to make the argument that digital billboards are uglier than traditional ones. Digital signs, which typically depend on low-energy LED lights, are bright and crisp and always look the same; traditional signs, on the other hand, rip, tear, and fade, and they can be clumsy and dangerous to install. Furthermore, digital signs are cheaper to produce (no printing or installation involved), meaning that mom and pop companies on a limited budget can now include outdoor advertising on their list of options.

Third: digital billboards can be used to improve safety on roadways and to facilitate the flow of traffic, as demonstrated by the Minneapolis billboard (above) that ran after the tragic collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge.

That said, we take seriously the assertion that digital billboards are a distraction for drivers. Though no conclusive links have been found between digital billboards and auto accidents, the Federal Highway Administration is conducting a study on the topic as we speak. The agency hopes to wrap up the study this summer, and we look forward to reading the results.

Bottom line: like in-car internet, the digital billboard genie is out of the bottle, and the devices are almost certainly here to stay. Our job -- and yours, too -- is to make sure they're deployed in safe, effective, responsible ways.

[USAToday via KickingTires]

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Comments (4)
  1. illboards - all advertising, including TCC - is the business of catching eyes with a message "buy (or do) this" Thats good even on the road. However, some are so bright and flashing, especially at night, that they are a distraction.

  2. @L.Harris: While I appreciate your take on things, I'd love to know how you manage to avoid all other advertisements aside from billboards. Walk down the street, and you'll probably see flyers. Enter your place of business: more flyers, postcards, junk mail. Turn on the TV, turn on the computer, turn on the radio: you're swamped by ads. I don't see how billboards are any more offensive than, say, the Burger King commercials I have to endure when I'm watching Project Runway -- I mean, Monster Garage.
    And no, you can't "close the browser" on billboards, but isn't driving by them the same thing?
    Of course, I'm playing devil's advocate here. I love scenic drives, and I think many billboards are nine kinds of ugly. Still, I'd rather look at a nice, clean digital billboard than some of the ratty, wind-worn numbers I see when I scoot around town.

  3. Richard: Unfortunately, you've failed to address one of the most important issues involving digital billboards, and that's energy use. While LEDs are energy-efficient, the fact that these signs have hundreds of thousands of those lights turns them into energy hogs. We've taken the industry's own figures and calculated that one full-size digital billboard operating 24 hours a day uses 6-10 times the energy of an average-sized, single-family house.

  4. @Dennis: You get no argument from me: that is a real problem. But I think we all know that billboards, like the rest of print media, is going digital, and there's no reversing that trend. So given that, the questions to answer are: (a) how can we limit the distractions caused by digital billboards, and (b) how can we minimize the energy/environmental impact?

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