Tuesday, December 03, 2013

If I Were A Billboard Baron - A Win (x4) Transition

There is a fascinating chart on page four about vehicle accidents in a recent comprehensive analysis of autonomous vehicles that have the potential to revolutionize road travel including what is already the mode of travel for 2 billion visitor person-trips each year.

Of the 5.5 million crashes a year, 31% involve alcohol and 7% involve drugs, 30% involve speeding, 21% involve distracted drivers and 14% involve failing to keep in the proper lane etc.

Distractions include decisions to text while driving which is just stupid.  But some distractions to drivers are purposeful, such as state-sanctioned commercial outdoor billboards that contribute significantly to the $300 billion annual cost of vehicle crashes (2% of GDP.)

In total, of the 5.5 million crashes per year,  2.2 million result in fatalities or injuries.

If this isn’t reason enough to ban billboards along publicly-built and owned roadways from which they parasitically draw their only value - to be seen - billboards are also responsible for the clear cutting of hundreds of thousands of publicly-owned trees, robbing the nation of their public health and ecological benefits.

It may sound a lot like corruption, but like most, it is legal corruption.

Will autonomous vehicles further enable billboards by making the consequences of distracted driving moot?  My guess is that freed from worrying about this particular distraction, billboards will become even more irritating to the nearly 8-in-10 drivers and passengers who see them as blight, robbing them of a scenic viewshed.

Advertisers are becoming sensitive not only to the negative return on investment from that marketing tactic in general, but that it also makes no sense to turn off such a high ratio of consumers for every one you serve.  Not a very smart business plan.

And then there is the increasing value of the trees they desecrate to global climate regulation.  So what will happen to those whom Americans deemed “billboard barons” almost a century ago?

And what about the 1-in-10 people traveling on the roadways who still find them useful or entertaining?

Enablers come from ironic places.  On a recent trip to Birmingham, Alabama, anticipating the Birmingham skyline around a bend at the top of a rise, not far from “dead man’s curve,” I was greeted instead by a Realtor’s message on  a huge billboard heralding her expertise in curb appeal while marring that community’s visual aesthetics.

In North Carolina where I live, a group worried about the desecration of proposed fracking is utilizing a billboard that desecrates roadside mountain views as the means to get their message out to the public.

What a win-win for the out-of-state billboard company which provided this comp I assume, in a deliberate strategy to glean some much needed credibility. But the lack of credibility is likely to rub off on the advertiser instead.

Their excuse is that fracking is an even bigger potential blight.  That’s lame and hypocritical.  Roadside forests along the national highway system alone amount to the equivalent of 14 national forests and the equivalent of sequestering emissions from 2.6 million cars a year.

It is a “dot” some of us had to connect a few years ago for Keep American Beautiful when officials there suffered a lapse in judgment and forgot that scenic preservation is more than reducing roadside litter.  It also includes what many Americans call “litter on a stick.”

The group that generates funding for the arts in Charlotte has succumbed to billboard subterfuge first perpetrated by billboard companies in the 1920s and 1930s when billboard barons justified blight by claiming to to be the “art gallery to the masses.”

The group, which should be more, not less sensitive to visual blight, is utilizing billboards to showcase the work of local visual artists probably provided comp or at a discount, again to reap much needed credibility.

Lost on those who should probably best understand scenic preservation vs. blight is that the billboard companies there are simultaneously slashing trees and vegetation meant to prevent erosion and eliminate toxic chemicals from storm run off while pressing the state to be able to clear cut trees planted by that community to beautify boulevards.

As Jeff Buddle noted in the publication ArtsEditor several years ago (paragraph breaks are mine):

“The term ‘artist's billboard’ is an oxymoron.  While not seeming to, the two words cancel each other out.

As artists, critics, or simply art-fans, we hope that artists are powerful enough to conquer their media bending an unconventional form to their will.

But a billboard’s semiotic associations are strong to the point of impenetrability; they are perceived as a ground whose sole domain is owned by advertising companies.

If an artist takes over a billboard, his or her artwork is bent and skewed by our expectations…the road diffuses the images, the gallery infuses them.”

State Farm agents (including my own) and Harley-Davidson dealerships (with the exception of mine in Durham, NC) are also ironic enablers of billboards.

The former should be concerned about distracted drivers and the  latter, for which scenic preservation and enjoyment is a primary reason to ride, should both know better.  But most marketers never think about the downside or net effect.

All of these enablers seem more like hostages strapped to the front bumper during desperate escape attempts.  But they are keeping an obsolete and increasingly negative-return technology on life support by providing the misperception of credibility.

While binging on movies over the holiday, I may have glimpsed what will be a win-win-win while watching Parker, an action-drama released a year ago starring Jennifer Lopez and Jason Statham, and set  primarily in West Palm Beach, Florida.

As shown in the image in this blog, the director superimposed the name of the community, whenever a change of location occurred.

In the future, when we have autonomous vehicles and when both the billboard barons and their state-sponsored enablers have determined that these grossly impractical sources of blight are just not beneficial or cost effective, they will hopefully transition to “virtual” billboards.

Like the movie special effect that superimposed the name of the community on the West Palm Beach skyline, billboard companies could soon transition to producing and selling virtual billboards along highways instead of blighting the landscape with the physical versions of today.

Rather than disgusting the nearly 8-in-10 Americans who view physical billboards as a desecration, these virtual billboard would be visible on prompt by only the 1-in-10  passengers who desire to have them superimposed on the route, using the windows of autonomous vehicles much like Google Glass is today.

I have a good friend who finds billboards useful primarily as a means of breaking monotony.  Have at it, but hopefully in the future with the use of virtual billboards and without desecrating roadsides and compromising public health for everyone else.

This would be much less expensive for the billboard barons than maintaining millions of physical billboards.

It would also be better for advertisers who would finally have a reliable metric of effectiveness or lack thereof, better for the environment and for those who prefer a blight-free experience.

Best of all, it would still be license-able by states, cities and counties for user fees but hopefully indexed to the revenue reaped by the billboard companies rather than based on physical real estate value as they are now.

I’ve always driven vehicles with manual transmissions because I like the feel of the road driving that way and the control it gives me over the vehicle, but I’ll willingly give that up for safety just to get rid of billboards as a major source of scenic  blight.

Besides, there will probably be a feature in automated vehicles that would give me the same sensations.  And my friends traveling with me who may enjoy billboards can look at as many of them as they wish but without desecrating views for the rest of us and creating havoc on nature.

Autonomous vehicles are not as far off as you think.  According to the report, which lays out a series of policy recommendations, the mining conglomerate Rio Tinto is already using the technology for its huge Komatsu ore trucks and plans to add another 150 to its feet over the next few years.  Caterpillar also offers autonomous hauling, dozing, drilling and other heavy equipment.

The promise for tourism, or the promotion of visitor-centered economic and cultural development that communities use to leverage and promote sense of place is immense including the benefits of fewer accidents, elimination of driving while intoxicated as an issue, virtual wayfinding and roadside scenic preservation, to name only a few.

If I were an investor in the hedge funds that now own or bankroll most billboard companies, I’d be pushing now for autonomous vehicle research and the beginning of a related transition to virtual billboards.

If I was a researcher doing future reports on the impact of autonomous vehicles, I’d begin incorporating the public health and other sequestration values of eliminating the need for physical billboards and the reversion of roadsides to nature.

If I were still involved in community destination marketing, I’d begin strategic preparations now for this and other near-term transitions in tourism and ensure that I wasn’t enabling roadside blight by using billboards, even if the blight is created elsewhere.

If I were a state of federal official including those responsible for roadways, I’d be pushing billboard companies to begin the transition to virtual forms and begin the reforestation of roadsides by recognizing the much higher priority on scenic preservation as a far more valuable resource for sense of place and economic development.

This isn’t magic -Just sayin’.

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