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Don’t look now: Digital billboards rise again

Coming soon: digital lap dances over your smartphone.

Rust never sleeps, and neither does the billboard lobby. A year ago Clear Channel, the Texas-based media conglomerate that dominates “out of home” advertising in this area, struck out twice in its efforts to make the roadways safe for lucrative digital billboards. The King County Council scuttled what seemed a done deal that would have let Clear Channel convert its 21 conventional billboards in unincorporated county territory into what critics call “televisions on sticks.” Clear Channel also failed in a bid for much bigger stakes: to persuade the legislature to allow digital boards along state highways. Such a measure passed the Senate in 2011 but died in committee in the House that year and the next.

Now it’s back, with bipartisan sponsorship. This year’s digital billboard bill will actually get a public hearing, at 3:30 Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee. Transportation chair Judy Clibborn, who blocked last year’s effort, is standing back this time.

Oddly, the reintroduced bill seems to have caught both anti-billboard activists and regulators flatfooted. Neighborhood- and scenic-protection advocates who mustered against past efforts may not have time to turn out now. “We’re still looking at it,” says Mike Dornfeld, who oversees the Washington Department of Transportation’s billboard program. “We don’t have an opinion yet.”

This year’s edition is at least more forthright in its advertising. Last year’s bill was putatively about “authorizing the use of digital outdoor advertising signs to expand the state's emergency messaging capabilities.” This year’s promises to provide “cities and towns with the local options [sic] to permit digital outdoor advertising signs.” The deal is the same, however; in return for being allowed to go digital, billboard operators would post AMBER alerts (abducted children), blue alerts (cop killers at large), and missing persons and emergency notices for free.

It’s a deal Clear Channel and its competitors gladly embrace and cannily publicize. Public service postings are how they woo citizens and politicians who might otherwise see billboards as ugly and intrusive.

And so, six days before this year’s House bill was to get its hearing, Mayor Mike McGinn and County Councilmember Reagan Dunn unveiled a “campaign to raise awareness of human trafficking taking place in our community” and saluted Clear Channel for donating “$94,000 in advertising space” (i.e.,13 billboard postings) plus $88,000 in air time.

Such gestures can make friends and influence legislation. "I'm for anything that helps the AMBER alert system," says Rep. Chris Reykdal, one of the current bill's sponsors. (He also supports digital billboards because they're "the future of advertising" and "a tremendous advantage in the marketplace," not only for billboard operators like Clear Channel but for "small businesses that can't afford to rent a whole billboard" but can afford to buy eight-second spots in the electronic queue.)

Officials in Kent, the first King County municipality to allow digital billboards, have said they’re delighted with Clear Channel's public-service postings. But their counterparts in Renton and Burien were less impressed; they urged the county not to approve the e-boards for fear they’d be stuck with them when, as expected, those cities annex the now-unincorporated land that the billboards stand on. Tacoma, courting a lawsuit, rescinded its earlier assent to convert many conventional billboards to digital.

Judy Clibborn, the House transportation chair, last year opined that electronic billboards were not only obnoxious but unnecessary. Highway managers already have plenty of electronic emergency alert readers, she explained: “They don’t need” Clear Channel’s help. This year, an aide says, “she doesn’t yet have an opinion on it. She hasn’t had time to take a look at it.”

Academic researchers have begun questioning the effectiveness of that help — in particular of the AMBER (“America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response”) alerts, this century’s answer to the “Have you seen me?” milk cartons of the 1980s and the poster child for public-service billboards generally. A 2007 University of Nevada study found that AMBER alerts only rarely publicize the sort of stranger abductions that are actually dangerous and that the alerts usually go out too late to affect the critical three-hour rescue “window” in such cases. The lead researcher called most Amber alerts “crime-control theater.”

Research has also begun to hone in on a question of much heated speculation: whether the brightly glowing, image-shuffling electronic boards are a dangerous distraction. A Swedish study released last fall found that drivers were more likely to look at digital than at conventional billboards, and for longer periods. Contrary to the overheated claims of some billboard critics, they did not conclude (or try to determine whether) digital boards actually cause more accidents. But the data were enough to convince Swedish authorities, who closed the tests and took down the trial e-boards.

Such results aren’t surprising: The point of advertising is to grab and hold attention. And in the competition for eyeballs, digital billboards are AK-47s in a field of muskets. Their illumination can be calibrated and adjusted to ambient light levels. They can respond to events and opportunities with breathtaking speed: Within 15 minutes of Usain Bolt's 100-meter triumph in last year’s Olympics, Strongbow Cider flashed a tribute (and cleverly appropriated Bolt's signature pose, sans sponsorship) on British billboards. Most important, e-boards shift images — typically every eight seconds, sometimes every four — enabling them to deliver, and their owners to charge for, thousands of “message units” per day.

Washington is one of a small minority of states that still bans such image-shuffling. The Federal Highway Administration banned it until 2007 under a provision of the Ladybird Johnson-era Highway Beautification Act barring “flashing,” “moving,” and “intermittent” displays on federal highways. That year the FHWA torturously reasoned that images that change every few seconds are not “intermittent,” so states can allow them. (The billboard industry and the legislation it promotes take pains to reinforce this view by referring to digital billboards as “static” displays — static meaning they stay still for up to eight seconds.)

Two weeks ago, the anti-blight group Scenic America filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., seeking to overturn that 2007 finding and pull the plug on highway e-boards. If Scenic America succeeds it might render any action by the legislature moot, at least on the most important highways.

That’s not stopping the billboard industry from fighting in every local venue. The opportunities are too big to pass up, especially in an era when so many other advertising media are withering. In the words of Clear Channel COO Jonathan Bevan, “Our business is where brands meet people.”

Those meetings may get much more intimate as outdoor marketing technology advances. “Screens are being fitted with cameras to determine the age and sex of people drawn to them and tailor messages accordingly,” The Economist recently reported. “With WiFi they can zing ads to the mobile phones of passersby. Soon shoppers may buy things by touching phones to digital displays.”

Once those displays learn to read and transmit through speeding windshields, we’ll be able to shop, not just gawk, at roadside billboards. Let’s hope self-driving cars arrive first.

Click here for more on electronic billboards from Eric Scigliano.

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