Tuesday, March 08, 2011


People in the business of marketing states and communities for visitor-centric economic and cultural development often jokingly refer to outdoor billboards along roadways as “litter-on-a-stick.”

Savvy tourism officials have long understood that any value in billboards comes at a huge expense to the sense of place so critical to generating travel in the first place, and businesses and organizations seeking to harvest interest en route have far more effective substitutes.

However, if the outdoor billboard industry gets the influence it tries to buy in the North Carolina General Assembly, we will see this type of litter popping up more than seven times per mile (every 1500’) and what tree barrier remains along state and federal roadways here will be swathed even wider to ensure each driver sees from one to the billboard to the next.6a00d8341bf9ae53ef0148c7fe1e53970c

The industry wants to blink 10,000 messages a day per billboard, mushrooming multiple times the 1 million advertising images we’re bombarded with per person per day already via all mediums.

Oh, and they want to take regulation away from local communities so they aren’t able to protect their “unique sense of place” especially destinations like Durham which has prohibited new billboards for more than two decades now and soundly rejected the outdoor billboard industry’s similar ploy last year.

Sound familiar? The tobacco lobby tried the same thing in 1993 in an effort to derail but unsuccessfully thwart smoking bans. Judging by the two people I know in the outdoor billboard industry, they seem honorable but as a whole the industry is a bully as noted in yesterday’s excellent Herald-Sun editorial.

The outdoor billboard industry is evocative of the “bullies” reigned in at the end of the 19th century by Governor and then President Teddy Roosevelt: disrespectful, self-righteous and feeling more than a bit “entitled” to play rough and loose with the view-shed or field of vision that belongs to the public.

The usefulness of advertising in general is seriously threatened by its ubiquity and “less is more” right now. But outdoor billboards are obsolete and remarkable now by their absence.

Outdoor billboards belong now only in museums or preserved as artifact like the one restored atop the historic Old Bull Building in Durham, a national historic landmark. As the late management guru Peter Drucker noted, one of the four elemental activities of management is “organizing for the abandonment” of obsolete products and services. This is what the outdoor billboard industry should be doing.

For 10 compelling reasons for billboard control, read this link by a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, Edward T. McMahon updated for Planning Commissioners Journal this winter:

  1. Billboards are a form of pollution – visual pollution
  2. Billboards are out of place in most locations
  3. Billboards destroy distinctiveness
  4. Billboards are the only form of ads you can’t turn off or avoid
  5. Billboard companies sell something they don’t own – our field of vision
  6. Billboards are ineffective and unnecessary
  7. Billboard companies exercise almost no restraint
  8. Billboards are both a cause and a symptom of blight
  9. Billboards are bad for business
  10. Digital billboards use huge amounts of energy, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

But they do have one effective purpose – they fund election campaigns while targeting anyone in their way.

Any elected official tempted to go ideological in support of outdoor billboards though needs to know that a President signaled as a model for conservative leadership by the Heritage Foundation, Calvin Coolidge, seriously curbed outdoor billboards as governor of Massachusetts in the early 1900s and that was back when they were very small, folksy and rare.

I close by paraphrasing McMahon: Come see North Carolina before it is nothing more than a ride through the yellow pages; a windshield vista of 50-foot beer cans, towering casino signs and strip club teasers.

Ask your elected representatives to preserve North Carolina and defeat or veto this bill.

1 comment:

John said...

Great work, Reyn!

We don't need big, bright billboards blinking thousands of ads a day for things our children don't need to see.

Local communities deserve the right to decide for themselves. Communities should be allowed to have some control over local ordinances, not some out-of-state billboard company.

Industry will counter with talk about jobs and badly needed tax revenues. This is nothing but spin. Contrary to industry assertions, tax revenues from billboards are minuscule. And after all their talk about jobs, hiring a computer guy to change digital ads from afar doesn't generate jobs. In fact, not needing as many road crews to change billboard signs would likely result in fewer jobs (not more).

To be clear, electronic billboards are not good for the community.

Once installed, electronic billboards would be very expensive for local governments to remove. Local taxpayers would have to pay the industry "just compensation" -- which would include the value of the property plus the exponentially increased revenues they generate for their owners. Compensation for removal would amount to millions of taxpayer dollars while the billboards contribute little to your tax base.

Tax dollars are needed to support schools, sheriff and other vital services -- before risking scarce local resources for an out-of-state billboard company.

While industry will talk about public service ads for nonprofits, you hardly see any in areas with digital billboards. If they got digital signs across the state, you wouldn't be able to enforce commitments from industry to provide PSAs. Subsequent billboard company managers could decide not to provide public service ads and you'd be stuck.

Industry will talk about Silver and Amber alerts. But, police departments elsewhere are trying to opt out of these billboard alerts.

The state already has its own series of official message signs for Amber Alerts. They're designed to provide the information for motorists to react with the least possible distraction from their driving task, because they are designed in accordance with safe highway practices as mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In contrast, the Amber Alerts on billboards have no official sanction, and often display useless and unnecessary information. As a result, according to Scenic Michigan, rather than communicating an important message in a non-distracting way, they require the motorist to take his/her eyes off the road for extended periods to read the material on the billboard.

Nonprofits and local businesses that have digital billboard ads tend to reduce budgets for advertising in local newspapers and other media outlets. This will take additional monies out of the local economy and reduce support for area businesses. Billboards for national companies won't contribute much to the state's economy.

To our neighbors across the state, industry is trying to quickly move its measure to stick electronic billboards, 50 feet in the sky over your communities. Speak up. Scenic America, www.scenic.org/billboards, is a great resource.

Don't be hoodwinked by industry when they insist it's good for the community to erect billboards, brighter than daylight, next to our roadways.

This is not a partisan issue. Friends from across the political spectrum think it's a terrible idea to have big TVs in the sky flashing 10,000 ads/day near our homes, schools, parks and places of worship.

Get ready for some slick arguments from the billboard industry. They've already started talking about an industry study that claims their flashing billboards don't distract drivers; don't draw your eyes off the road. (We also have some nice oceanfront property to sell you near Boone.)

Once the billboard industry opens the door, and gets all their digital billboards up, the door can't be closed.