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Do we really want more flashy digital billboards?

King County and the city of Tacoma are considering whether to allow bright, image-flipping electronic billboards recalling those seen along I-5 near Fife in Pierce County. Critics, including some suburban cities, are fighting the idea of "billboards on amphetamines."

Coming soon: digital lap dances over your smartphone.

Coming soon: digital lap dances over your smartphone.

If things had gone according to plan, King County would have joined the bright new world of nonstop, image-flipping electronic billboards last week. That’s when the County Council planned to pass an ordinance, pushed by the dominant local outdoor-advertising firm Clear Channel, that would have opened the county to the digital billboards that have become unmistakable fixtures and political flashpoints in Los Angeles and many other cities.

But the council decided to postpone the vote for at least two weeks and send the measure back to committee for some tweaking. The reason given: Council staff hadn’t given sufficient public notice. This was true; the bill had moved with unusual dispatch and unusually little notice toward passage. Officials of three cities prospectively affected by the ordinance complained that they hadn’t learned of it until the last minute, and the leading local billboard critic didn’t find out until after the council took final public comment on June 6. No citizens showed up to speak except two Clear Channel executives.

But it’s not the whole story. In the wake of that cozy hearing, a slew of questions have arisen about the wisdom of going digital — issues that the council hadn’t considered as it moved to embrace this most visible of digital revolutions.

One obvious question: Would this lead to the sort of outsized, overlit, manically flashing and animated billboards that line Interstate 5 near Fife and Milton? Not nearly, as Clear Channel takes pains to point out. The I-5 flashers stand on Puyallup tribal land and wouldn’t be allowed by other jurisdictions. The new ordinance would merely allow Clear Channel to convert the 21 billboards it now has in the unincorporated country to “static” electronic signs. That is, static to a point: They could, and would, change images every eight seconds, the maximum allowed for digital signs in most jurisdictions including Seattle and, more broadly, Washington state. Imagine giant roadside computer screens showing an endless succession of pop-ups.

Some studies have found that this creates enough driver distraction to cause more accidents. Other studies find no increase in the accident rate, and others find more accidents with any kind of billboard.

There’s also some debate as to how effective the fast-flicking images are as advertising. What’s certain is that they’re marketing manna for the self-described “out-of-home” advertising industry. “Advertisers are encouraged to approach digital outdoor as an entirely new media form,” Clear Channel urges in its Seattle media kit.

Indeed. If the giant printed wallscapes described in a previous Crosscut report could be called billboards on steroids, then these are billboards on amphetamines. The company markets its “Seattle” electronic boards (so far just five, all of them in Kent, the only local jurisdiction that’s approved them) less as signs than as out-of-home TV commercials. Join the rotation and “your ad will be seen 4,810 times per day continually 19 hours per day. Generating 134,680 advertising spots over a 4-week period.” And that's just with five sites. Imagine the 21 billboards in unincorporated King County or the 520 in Seattle being transformed into giant televisions showing eight commercials per minute to viewers who can’t change the channel. You can bet the clever folks at Clear Channel do.

The company's strategy for getting this region to go digital seems to be to build on successes, one jurisdiction at a time. Clear Channel persuaded Kent officials by offering to air their emergency alerts and public-service messages. Kent’s police and Human Services Commission say they’re delighted with the results.

That helped sell the idea to King County Councilmembers Jane Hague and Larry Phillips, who sponsored the measure. “I particularly like the public safety aspects,” says Hague. “I also like the cost savings for Clear Channel.” (For the record, state public-disclosure filings show that Hague and Phillips have been the biggest recipients of Clear Channel campaign donations on the County Council. Since 2003 the company has given Phillips $3,000. Hague has received $3,850 from Clear Channel, its Seattle outdoor operations president, Olivia Lippens, and Lippens' husband.)


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 5:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks Eric for your reporting on Clear Channel's efforts to co-opt public spaces for their private gain. Billboards in general are such an eye-sore. My neighborhood example is the giant sign on the northeast corner of MLK and Jackson. These digital billboards are an abomination. When I first came down I-5 and saw that digital sign in Milton, I was blown away that something like that could be legal....but it still stands years later. Recently, I noticed the one on First that is illustrated on the first page of the article. Mr. Potter won - the other part of the movie was just an angel's dream - and we are living and breathing in Pottersville.

curtisld

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

These are indeed a blight on the landscape; the optical equivalent of a shuckster contstantly yelling in your ear.

The hue and cry will soon be raised about how we over-regulate business. I predict: "If you don't want to see it, don't go outside!".

psj

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

We've been mustering to defeat the industrial blight complex known as Clear Channel Outdoor for years. Join our facebook group! http://www.facebook.com/pages/Turn-Out-That-Light-Tacoma/105050642910536 also my friend Kevin has been chronicling billboards in Tacoma in various stages of advanced decay in his series HEY CLEAR CHANNEL CLEAN UP YOUR CRAP here http://i.feedtacoma.com/KevinFreitas/hey-clear-channel-clean-up-009/ THANKS CROSSCUT!

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Will the **first** one to leave Tacoma turn off the billboards?

(BTW, good to hear from Mr. Scigliano again)

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't know about everyone else, but I'm just tired of everybody trying to get my attention and sell me things that I don't need or can't afford. Billboards, email spam, piles of newspaper adds (without newspapers!) dropped on my front porch, direct mail, dumb names on our stadiums, etc.

So.... whether digital or old-school, the fewer billboards, the better, in my opinion. I have no idea what the right balance is, but in this case, I think less is the new more. The flashy digital billboards are very effective in getting one's attention, and thus distracting our already distracted drivers.

And while we're taking road safety, why is it that these new car headlights are allowed to be so incredibly bright? Should it be legal to blind our fellow drivers in the interest of our own ability to see? I think not.

My rant is now complete. Thank you for another interesting story.

- Joe

jsperry

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

We can put these along the roads if they also agree to put them between their offices and Puget Sound.

talisker

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 3:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Conventional billboards are bad enough but digital billboards are in no way equivalent. One digital billboard has the ability to disfigure an entire landscape and should be regulated like other public hazards such as hog farm lagoons or nuclear waste.

J_G

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 4:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I know! Let's just go all the way and allow floating Blade Runner advertisement blimps while we're at it.

jsperry

Posted Fri, Jul 1, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Along the freeway, they are extremely distracting, and when it's dark they're so bright as to be almost blinding. When it's dark and foggy, like during most commutes in winter, the suddenly changing lights flash and illuminate the fog in a most startling way, especially when it's behind you. Thus, I think these billboards are not just an eyesore, they are a driving hazard. I wonder how many accidents they might have contributed to?

alally

Posted Fri, Jul 1, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Distraction and roadside blight aside, the irony is that the more of these "standout" billboards there are, the less effective they become as far as conveying any message. And as far as I'm concerned the more someone shouts "Look at ME, look at ME, look at ME", the more likely I am to ignore them completely. I feel the same about splashy, flashy ads on web pages... and a pop-up will virtually assure that I will NEVER buy anything from that sponsor.

I agree wholeheartedly with jsperry above. (About the blinding headlights too!)

KayElle

Posted Sat, Jul 2, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

This rather heartbreaking story should turn any fence-sitters against digital billboards:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v;=7aQjPWXWNGo

Another thing not mentioned by this article: digital billboards make noise! Tacoma has a lot of billboards along 6th Ave, a highly walkable strip of restaurants and shops. Replacing them with these would be horrid:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v;=AoKlQ-Dufao

The people of Tacoma might not be so rabidly against Clear Channel if they actually maintained their existing billboards. Their sky-trash of rusty poles and ripped signs shows what they really think of us ad-consumers:

http://i.feedtacoma.com/KevinFreitas/hey-clear-channel-clean-up-009/

Last, I just want to reinforce what was already stated in this article, that the people of Tacoma aren't just against digital billboards, but against all billboards. Tacoma passed a measure in 1997 to ban the biggest, ugliest, worst-located billboards, and gave CC 10 years to recoup their investment. After 10 years, CC sued Tacoma for the right to keep them indefinitely. They put up a "Constitutions Matter" message on all their billboards, presumably so they could argue in court that billboards are constitutionally protected free speech. See http://www.exit133.com/1989/constitutions-matter-we-hear.

Even though there are plenty of examples of other municipalities banning billboards (see http://i.feedtacoma.com/Erik/new-legal-analysis-tacomas-1997/, and the verbose http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context;=stephen_durden), CC had the balls to offer to Tacoma to take down most of their paper billboards if they could get digital ones instead — and amazingly, nearly succeeded! Although the Tacoma council and government is apparently rather gullible, the people of Tacoma are not, and are demanding that the 1997 law is upheld, even if that means going to court over it (which it probably will). I'm sure the support of our friends and neighbors around Puget Sound would be much appreciated.

Posted Thu, Jul 7, 8:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I recently saw a really moving piece on what happened in West St. Paul, Minnesota called TRASH IN THE SKY.

http://www.oohooc.com/?p=41

Iponder

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