Spurred by the ex-officio public-private partnership Durham Appearance Advocacy Group, city and county officials in Durham, North Carolina are crafting a plan to beautify several exits from the Durham Freeway as it skirts downtown.
The project is to serve as an aesthetic template that will eventually be applied to all interchanges on various controlled access highways as they pass through the community.
But at cross purposes is the desecration just created at an exit less than two minutes earlier where a new pedestrian bridge was intended to be a welcome to downtown.
The desecration also violates a stretch of Durham’s Pearsontown-Rocky Creek Greenway and lays bare a tree screen that had sheltered residential homes and a place of worship, all with the apparent active endorsement of the local chamber of commerce.
So, even if it has legal cover from the State General Assembly and Department of Transportation, why would a company risk the ire of residents in a community long-opposed to billboards when the billboard at that exit already had plenty of visibility through selective pruning and window-framing?
Greed plays a part but so does consumer behavior. The company that owns the billboard understands that different than advertising placed in magazines and newspapers and on broadcast media, consumer revulsion to the roadside desecration won’t accrue to the company that owns the billboard and responsible for the clear cutting (note Charlotte example in image below.)
Negative reaction will accrue instead to the unsuspecting advertiser paying to showcase its brand on the billboard, even if just as a public service announcement.
Anyone or any organization still considering the use of a roadside billboards under these conditions has plenty of reasons to be concerned, not the least of which is what experts are calling the new “status currency,” the status and vales that consumers wish to project through their purchasing decisions and brand affiliations.
The leading indicators that this consumer behavior will be dominant in only a few years are Millennials, ages 18 to 34 years old, who already account for an estimated $1.3 trillion in direct annual spending and who within 16 years will far outnumber baby boomers such as me.
It is clear that in the near future, outdoor billboard companies will be unable to hide behind their dwindling number of advertisers. In fact, Millennials prefer channels other than advertising to learn about products and brands.
Lawmaking bodies such as the General Assembly in North Carolina skew much older than the general population and are among the last to lean on advertising in general, let alone billboards, where there is no editorial other than the message on them to rationalize roadside desecration.
Regardless of political ideology, the hoof beats of obsolescence for billboards will grow louder as Millennials come to power with a sense of reciprocity that relates to sustainability vs. campaign contributions.
My guess is that Millennial lawmakers will not only return roadsides to the taxpayers by permitting only selective cutting for billboards accompanied by a requirement for replanting.
But the next generation of lawmakers will also drive a hard bargain, insisting on a percentage of revenues in return for the parasitic reliance (term used by the Courts) of billboard companies on publicly funded roadways.
Even at this vastly increased assessment, the “reciprocity principle” will also mean this new generation of lawmakers will carefully balance any gain from billboard companies with the damage they wreak on the economic and cultural brands of cities and states.
The infectious disease model that researchers apply to the lifecycle of social media has failed to account for the ability of outdoor billboards to remain virulent—while on life support—after their popularity declined early in the last century through a mix of intense political lobbying and the infusion of huge amounts of cash into campaigns.
This interference by lawmakers from both major parties has undermined the Highway Beautification Act which would have enabled the free market to allow billboards a peaceful exit of their own.
Anyone still persuaded to revive outdoor billboards through desecration of roadsides should visit studies showing that they are:
- used by fewer than 1-in-500 purchasers
- read and enjoyed by fewer than 1-in-10 Americans
- recommended by only 1-in-25 marketing professionals
- utilized by only 1 in 8 small and medium sized businesses
- utilized by only 1-in 33 small businesses
Even if those extremely low ratios somehow warrant the risk for a dwindling number of advertisers, the “reciprocity principle” among the growing majority of consumers dictates balancing the use of the huge billboards against their impact:
- lowering property values
- air, water and particulate pollution
- turning off relocating businesses
- destroying community and state curb appeal
Any use of advertising these days must be weighed carefully on return-on-investment (now in negative territory overall) rather than just the hope some awareness might be achieved.
The desperation of billboard companies to go digital at even greater costs to society is not for the benefit of the advertiser but to add more and more advertisers to each board, not matter that the visibility for each message is less.
Savvy marketers understand that at the very least a marketing channel such as advertising on a certain medium must require deeper analytics than just being seen. It must carefully factor and avoid if possible, residual turnoff.