Billboard watchdogs clean up skylines
Aiming to clear out commercial clutter, billboard watchdogs from Rio to Toronto police outdoor ads.
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Vinyl signs can now wrap whole buildings. LED screens can cover entire building facades. People now face ad-playing screens in elevators, taxis, public bathrooms, and at gas pumps. Developers even include sign revenue – and spaces for billboards – in their construction plans. Depending on size and location, signs can earn property owners more than $100,000 monthly.Skip to next paragraph
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The profusion of outdoor advertising is partially due to consumers’ newfound ability to avoid ads elsewhere. Cable TV, satellite radio, and technology such as digital video-recording devices increasingly allow consumers to avoid ads. “Consumers hate advertising [and] always have,” says Greg Stuart, coauthor of “What Sticks: Why Most Advertising Fails and How to Guarantee Yours Succeeds.” “Except now they’ve got more control over what they do about it.” Advertisers are seeking to recapture that fleeing audience. The Internet is receiving the lion’s share of new ad money. But marketers are intrigued by the outdoor option – for the same reason those like Tabello revile it.
“You can’t turn it off,” says Bryan Christie, a Los Angeles resident with an electronic billboard displaying Virgin Air’s latest fare specials, among other things, outside his apartment window. “It’s not like TV where you can choose whether you’re going to watch it or not…. You have no choice. It’s always there.”
That’s what sets outdoor advertising apart, says Jeff Golimowski, a spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) in Washington, D.C. “Outdoor advertisements provide the best bang for the buck,” he says. “You can’t do the things that you would do with other media to escape outdoor advertising.”
Even as advertising industry polls show antiad sentiment on the rise, Americans generally rate billboards – a $7.2 billion industry in the US – as one of the least annoying forms of advertising. And are they really in public space, anyway? Bus stops and benches aside, they’re usually on privately owned buildings. And as Rob Ford, a Toronto city councilor against taxing billboards says, “If you don’t like the color of your neighbor’s house, you can’t change the color of his house. To each his own.”
Advertising industry defenders often invoke the right to commercial-free speech.