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Digital billboards draw critics — and a small but lucrative slice of outdoor ads

Digital billboards draw critics — and a small but lucrative slice of outdoor ads
CBS Outdoor
There are nearly 500,000 billboards in the United States, but fewer than 5,000 of them are digital.

I like digital billboards. If we’re going to have billboards — and I think we are — then I prefer the bright color, crisp images and variety that digital boards provide.

But those same qualities have made them the target of critics who contend that they’re distracting to drivers. The latest salvo has been prompted by a Swedish traffic study (PDF), released last week, showing that drivers tend to look at electronic billboards longer than they do at non-electronic traffic signs.        

Although the study’s authors were careful to say they couldn’t conclude that digital billboards are a traffic safety hazard, anti-billboard organizations immediately started pushing the message that digital billboards are dangerous.

Because of opposition based on safety and aesthetic concerns (they’re very bright!), digital billboards haven’t gotten a widespread market foothold. There are nearly 500,000 billboards in the United States, but fewer than 5,000 of them are digital.

The outdoor advertising industry would love to see more digital billboards, because they offer greatly expanded sales opportunities. When an ad rep sells a traditional billboard, she sells one spot. But digital billboards typically rotate at least eight different spots. So a single board can yield eight ad sales instead of one.

And the spots aren’t cheaper. Because the digital boards are seen as having a greater impact, they command a premium price — they’re not discounted. Based on the eight-spot model, one digital billboard could generate anywhere from six to 10 times the revenue that a single traditional board would bring in. (Digital boards are expensive to erect, however, costing several times what a traditional board would.)

But even the relatively small number of digital billboards may be too much of a good thing.

I spoke recently with a Twin Cities outdoor advertising executive who said that sales reps are having trouble selling all the digital spots available. Web-based organizations often have the same issue with their digital advertising inventory.

Digital inventory is easily created in almost limitless quantities, leading to a glut of available advertising slots. That would suggest that the price of digital billboard ads eventually will come down, especially if more of them are built.

I’m not in favor of banning digital billboards. Drivers are accustomed to reading signs along the road, whether they carry advertising messages or warnings of road hazards ahead. In my mind, far greater dangers of driver distraction are posed by phoning, texting and navigation systems that are morphing into full-fledged dashboard entertainment centers.

I’ll be interested to see whether the number of digital billboards grows over the coming decade.

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Comments (2)

Two things

First, I think that animated displays on digital billboards should be prohibited. Off the top of my head I can't think of any examples, but I seem to recall having seen an animated display at least once.

If my recollection on this is faulty, so be it. But I do think an animated display would be more likely to be a hazard due to holding a driver's attention longer.

And secondly, I wonder if any studies have been done to assess the cycle time (the amount of time any given ad remains up before the billboard cycles to the next one) and its relationship to traffic hazard? I'm sure the advertisers would prefer shorter cycle times so that any given motorist would have a greater chance of seeing THEIR ad, but I would suspect that too short a cycle time could also be distracting and a hazard.

The digital billboards you

The digital billboards you see on major highways will be non-animated, switching creative from slide to the next after approx.. 7 to 10 seconds. The only animated digital signage you'll see are in places like Times Square in New York City or perhaps private business signs that are advertising their own services or products.

From an advertisers standpoint digital billboards offer so many new ways to connect with an audience in the outdoor space that just didn’t exist with much prevalence even 5 short years ago. But the key is to use the space well. I have seen automakers activate weather triggers to dictate copy - changing copy from a convertible on a sunny day to a more rugged vehicle on a rainy day – or even restaurants being able to promote their soup of the day or change copy throughout the day to highlight breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some grocers highlight their fresh or new products on sale, alcohol advertisers rotate their brand message alongside a safe driving/responsibility message and let’s not forget the social media integration implications of “live” tweets. You just can’t do these things in the outdoor space with non digital media.

That being said if I am working with a client that has no interest in applying this type of creative use I typically steer them away from digital billboards and recommend staying with a traditional non digital media.

Also, don’t forget production costs. A static (non digital) billboard can cost anywhere from $700 to $1,000 to physically print the materials that post but with digital advertisers can change their copy as often as possible at no cost.

Glyn S WIlliams
Account Director
Outdoor Advertising Group (OAG)