Every industry seems to have them: Those sleek and innovative big ticket items that are the playthings of the wealthy and the dream of the common man. I'm talking about those slick European sports cars that can zoom from zero to one hundred in a secondwe, those state-of-the-art home theater systems with astonishing color and ear-blasting sound, and those high-tech computers that process unimaginable amounts of data, control home climates, and solve political conflicts in mere nanoseconds.
In the sign industry, I believe that outdoor LED-based digital billboards are this stylish, gotta-have-it technology. Advertisers and businesses have to be salivating over the concept: Do you no longer want to wait for one static billboard campaign to end before putting a new message up? Do you wish you had more space for ads than what is offered by a tri-face sign? Do you want a message in the highest possible resolution? Someone bring me a towel! So far, these types of displays do not feature motion images, scrolling text, or sound. They mainly feature up to six high-resolution slide shows on a continuing basis.
The concept of outdoor digital billboards is still relatively new. Technology has caught up with the necessary sizes for these types of applications. Five years ago, outdoor digital signs were considered science fiction? Today, they're science "fact"-however a bit of pricey science fact. In some metropolitan areas, one sign can cost upwards to $600,000. (I don't consider them "big-ticket" for nothing. I hope you brought your platinum credit card with you.)
"We think it's a growth segment and a significant one at that," Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Freitas recently told the Scripps Howard News Service. "It's really in its infancy now." Lamar Advertising Co., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has about 120 of these high-tech displays up and running out of a total of its 150,000 billboards. And Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, Inc., of San Antonio, Texas, has seven such units in its Digital Outdoor Network, with plans to add a few more by the end of the year.
However, I've been keeping a keen interest in the development of these digital billboards in, of all places, Columbia, South Carolina. Its City Council voted this past spring to allow Lamar Advertising to build and install ten digital billboards that change messages every six seconds (permitting that they, according to newspaper The State, be at least 300 feet away from any home and 1,000 feet of a river). This act will allow the city to test the brightness of these units and then set a standard for it.
The big shocker: Columbia has long been known as a city interested in the concept of billboards-as-blight. A few years back, it passed an ordinance requiring billboard companies to take one down before putting another one up, and the surrounding county has all but banned any new boards.
Of course, opponents here brought up the same arguments: "Las Vegas!" "Times Square!" "Motorist safety!" Okay, that last point has always been a bit troublesome for me. The digital sign industry is caught in a Catch-22 situation: The argument states that these types of displays distract drivers, however, companies involved in this technology claim they do not cause distractions. But wait a second! Aren't these displays being sold as being "attentiongetting?" Why would anyone pay these big bucks for an item that goes unnoticed? This needs to be addressed at some point.
It should be noted that only metropolitan markets seem to be interested in this technology right now. It has yet to reach national interest. But I have a feeling that if brightness regulations can be worked out-and costs can come down-their growth might be an even bigger story by the end of the decade.