February 25, 2013

Digital billboards face dual challenges

Photo | Pablo Robles
Photo | Pablo Robles
Outdoor advertising executive Stephen Hebert's view that digital billboards cut down on billboard clutter is counter to environmental critics who claim the rapid rotation of ads appearing on digital boards is a new dimension of visual clutter that should be minimized.
Photo | Pablo Robles
“They really don’t create a distraction to the drivers,” Hebert says of digital billboards.

A national nonprofit is attempting to severely limit the operation of digital billboards along interstates and highways, an increasingly popular advertising media in Connecticut along I-91, I-84, and I-95.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation also is attempting to regulate digital billboards in this year's legislative session, although with less potentially drastic results.

Digital billboards display electronic messages that typically rotate advertisements and public service messages on a set interval, as opposed to static billboards with one message displayed on a poster for 30 days or more.

"They have allowed cities and ourselves to not have a proliferation of billboards," said Stephen Hebert, general manager and vice president of Lamar Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. "You basically have six billboards on one pole."

The Federal Highway Administration said in a 2007 memo that digital billboards can change messages as frequently as every 4 seconds. In Connecticut, the law requires message remain static for 6 seconds.

Lamar, which owns 17 of the roughly 20 digital billboards in Connecticut, keeps its messages static for 10 seconds.

Washington, D.C. nonprofit Scenic America has a different rotation in mind — limiting digital billboards to one message per day.

The organization, dedicated to preserving the visual character of America's communities, filed a lawsuit in January against FHWA over its 2007 memo allowing for intermittent messages. The lawsuit came three years after Scenic America tried to resolve the dispute through a petition to the agency.

"The end result is not that these things have to be dismantled, but they have to be changed so the messages are not intermittent," said Bill Brinton, counsel for Scenic America.

Scenic America says FHWA's 2007 memo violated the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which restricts lighting on freeway billboards and prevents intermittent advertisements.

"Everything as to lighting was pretty straight forward until 2007," Brinton said.

Such anti-intermittent measures were successful in Arizona in 2012, where the state supreme court upheld a ban on digital billboards because they violate the state's ban on intermittent lights.

If successful nationally, Scenic America would change everything about digital billboards that make them appealing to advertisers and billboard owners, Hebert said.

Clients like the flexibility that digital billboards provide, Hebert said. Advertisers can change their messages instantly through an online program and even cater their messages to the different times of day.

A restaurant, for example, can promote its breakfast menu in the morning and its dinner menu in the afternoon. Auto dealers can rotate the vehicles they choose to highlight.

"Digital billboards have become much more prevalent now," said Eric Schweighoffer, vice president and media director for Hartford communications firm Cashman + Katz, which runs advertising campaigns for clients. "You can be very timely with those messages."

Connecticut had its first digital billboard displayed in October 2005 along I-84 in Hartford. Of the 20 that now populate the state, the majority are on I-95 between Stratford and New Haven, although Hartford is home to six and Waterbury has two.

"We are seeing a steady growth in digital billboards," said Ken Klein, vice president of the national trade group Outdoor Advertising Association of America. "It is quick and effective."

The number of digital billboards nationally has grown steadily over the past 10 years to 4,000, representing 1 percent of all billboards in America.

In addition to the flexibility digital billboards provide, advertisers like them because they have low production costs, Klein said, as opposed to a static billboard where clients must pay to produce the posters and have crews install them.

Billboard owners like digital because of the increased options and revenue they provide. They are more expensive to put in and maintain, Klein said, but sign owners can make more money by selling a single billboard to several clients.

Lamar will have up to six advertisers per electronic billboard, Hebert said.

If digital billboards were limited to just one message per day, then Lamar and other operators such as CBS Outdoor Connecticut of North Haven would have to change the way they market the service, Hebert said.

The number of digital billboards is about to increase drastically in New England. Massachusetts in December authorized the technology following a three-year study that found the billboards were not a distraction to drivers.

Hebert said Lamar plans on applying for several Massachusetts digital billboards when the permit application process opens on March 4.

"They really don't create a distraction to the drivers," Hebert said.

Because of the rising popularity of digital signs in Connecticut, the state DOT is pushing for a change in state law on the intermittent messages.

Instead of six seconds, the messages would remain static for eight, said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. The proposal legislation before the 2013 General Assembly is less about regulating the media and more FHWA trying to standardize the laws across all states.

When Connecticut first got digital billboards in 2005, DOT did receive some complaints about brightness and intensity of the light, but the signage companies have been quick to respond, Nursick said. No complaints have arisen at DOT since those first few.

"These are going to be more and more popular," Nursick said.

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