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

Although a new study was careful not to call them a traffic safety hazard, opponents immediately started pushing the message that they’re dangerous.

There are nearly 500,000 billboards in the United States, but fewer than 5,000 of them are digital.
CBS Outdoor

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.

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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.