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Digital Signage on the Fast Track

(September 2016) posted on Tue Oct 04, 2016

Statistical trends and news items herald increasing acceptance of outdoor displays


By Bill Dundas

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Humans often view technological changes with fear or skepticism. This is particularly true with respect to municipal officials responsible for developing sign regulations. It’s not difficult to find quotes by officers representing various cities across the nation that restate essen-tially the same misconceptions about digital signage that have per-sisted since the advent of this technology. But that may be changing. The dominant trend these days is pointing to greater understanding and acceptance of digital signage as a useful and powerful messaging tool.

According to its survey of the nation’s overall inventory, released in the first quarter of 2016, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) reported a total of 6,400 digital billboards currently in use nationwide. Compared to the approximately 4,000 billboards existing in Q1 of 2013, this represents 60% growth during the most recent three-year period. Furthermore, it’s estimated that the total number of digital billboards in the US has doubled since 2012. Such impressive strides never could have been made in the absence of heightened familiarity with this technology and deeper understanding by regulatory officials throughout the nation. This is confirmed by recent news items that speak to the ongoing evolution in local officials’ perceptions of digital signage.

Regulatory update
At the state level, the Montana Transportation Commission recently granted approval for construction of digital billboards on properties zoned for commercial or industrial uses. These new rules were scheduled to take effect by summer’s end in 2016. The state has stipulated that message changes on billboards cannot occur more frequently than 8-second intervals, nor can billboards be located closer than 1,000 feet from highway entrances or exits. Additionally, automatic dimming controls for nighttime operation are required, and the state has specified a minimum spacing of 2,000 feet between adjacent billboards.

In neighboring Wyoming, the Gillette City Council is currently considering zoning changes that would allow additional digital billboards. Meanwhile, in Florida, the Cape Coral City Council approved, by a 6-2 vote, a contract proposal by Lamar Advertising (Baton Rouge, LA) that allows construction of two entry structures on city-controlled property located at the foot of the Cape Coral Bridge. These structures will incorporate digital billboards and, once in place, the city will begin sharing the advertising revenue to the tune of $54,200 annually, in addition to receiving two outdoor digital message boards for promoting its own community events and public-service messages.

Of course, not all reports from the regulatory front have been so positive. For example, the City of Livonia, MI recently received a legal decision that supports the municipality’s intention to extend its billboard ban, which has been in effect since 1952. The Michigan Court of Appeals handed down a ruling that upholds the ban in a case that arose in 2013 when a building permit application submitted by an outdoor advertising firm for erection of a new billboard was denied by the city. The outdoor firm submitting the application subsequently filed a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court that was referred to the Court of Appeals for adjudication.

Smart billboards
In Canada, a new digital billboard advertising campaign for Dannon’s drinkable yogurt products is utiliz-ing innovative technology to height-en the impact of ads (Figure 1). Initiated by Young and Rubicam (Montreal) for the client’s agency Carat (Montreal), the new program tailors ads to four different traffic conditions instead of the conventional fast/slow dichotomy. The aim is to better correspond to the changing moods of motorists under varying traffic conditions at different times of day.

Demonstrating even more advanced technology, the smart data storage firm Cloudian Inc. (San Mateo, CA) has partnered with Japanese advertising company Dentsu (Tokyo) to launch an innovative pilot project: Digital billboards incorporate video cameras that scan and detect the makes, models and years of passing vehicles as a basis for assessing the preferences of motorists (Figure 2). For example, eco-friendly products might be displayed for drivers of hybrid vehicles, while a new model of the same vehicle that a motorist is currently driving might be displayed as an incentive to trade in an older car. Should the system detect tractor-trailers, their drivers might see ads for nearby truck stops. 

The vehicle recognition system currently is capable of identifying approximately 200 different types of vehicles. This system may also help bolster various public agencies’ analyses of typical traffic volume patterns during specific times of day. A related Cloudian project plans to conduct trials of similar, real-time advertising based on analyzing human behaviors in public spaces such as shopping malls and tourist sites. So don’t be too surprised if, in the brave new world of the future, when you stop to rest on a bench at your local mall, a nearby digital screen begins to cycle ads for foot powder and massages. 

Promoting human connections
In 1953, sociologist Robert Nisbet published his seminal book “The Quest for Community,” which posits that the rise of the powerful modern state has eroded traditional sources of community including the family, the neighborhood, the church or the craftsman’s guild. Hence, the author holds that human alienation and loneliness inevitably result from this modern disconnection of individuals from the larger community. 

Nisbet’s theory relates strongly to the role that digital signage plays in helping people feel a greater sense of solidarity with the society at large. In this vein, Clear Channel Outdoor’s recent #OrlandoStrong billboard campaign (Figure 3) promoted public unity in the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre in June.

Sign professionals understand that some community leaders inevitably will continue to harbor strong, anti-sign biases. But the outpouring of support for the community campaigns such as this makes it difficult to deny the positive potential of signs. Amertican cities and their public organizations are showing greater awareness of this possibility as digital signage continues to enhance the traditional value of visual communications.


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