Sign of the times: Digital billboards grab spotlight in Boston bombings

Digital billboards helped keep the public informed after the Boston bombings, but critics say the negatives outweigh the benefits.

Public service or public nuisance?

The pros and cons of digital billboards, a topic of hot contention in cities around the U.S., are getting new exposure in light of their use to alert and update Massachusetts residents in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Emergency response and law enforcement agencies say digital billboards — those huge, brightly-lit electronic signs that straddle roads and highways across the country — provide a crucial public service. The FBI says public announcements on the displays have helped nab murderers and bank robbers.

Opponents, including neighborhood groups and public space advocates, say the signs are an eyesore and a dangerous distraction to drivers. In some communities, residents are suing to stop their proliferation.

On the day of the Boston bombings, Clear Channel Outdoor Boston, working with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, used its Boston-area billboards to warn motorists to steer clear of Copley Square, where the explosions took place. A few days later, the billboards featured a "Wanted" sign with a larger-than-life image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving fugitive suspect in the attack. As the search for Tsarnaev intensified and the Boston area was virtually locked down, the signs featured new messages telling Bostonians to stay home.

"The appeal of digital billboards to the advertising platform is speed and flexibility. If you're trying to get a message out and you're the Lottery and the jackpot changes, you can change it quickly," said Ken Klein, executive vice president of government affairs at the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

"That same sort of flexibility and nimbleness is of great appeal on the noncommercial side. If you're running an Amber Alert or you're FEMA or you're looking for bad guys, speed and flexibility are great assets in emergency communications."

The FBI has partnered with digital billboard companies since 2007 to post "Wanted" signs for its top fugitives. The agency says publicity from the billboards has led to the capture of more than 50 of them.

"Long story short: The billboards are working and working well. And that means a safer America for all," the FBI said in a 2009 press release touting billboard-related arrests.


Advertisers routinely donate space on digital billboards to assist the public and government agencies.

"The goal is to empower the public to help law enforcement," Nancy Fletcher, president and CEO of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, said recently. "Putting 'Most Wanted' fugitives on digital billboards is a modern, high-tech version of the old 'Wanted' poster." 

The association says there are about 4,000 digital billboards — signs that are powered by LED lights and whose color images can be quickly changed by remote — across the nation. They're in every state except for Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont, which have banned all billboards.

The technology is only about a decade old, and so far only about 1 percent of all billboards in the U.S. have been converted to digital, Klein told MSN News.

That means several hundred thousand more digital billboards cold potentially come online in the years ahead.

That's a frightening scenario to critics, who say the negative impacts of the eye-catching signs far outweigh the public benefit.

Scenic America, a Washington-based conservation group, is among those suing to try to stop the proliferation of commercial digital billboards along federal highways.

"We receive distress calls from people all over the country who find these TVs-on-a-stick lining our highways to be distracting eyesores, and in some instances the signs even shine into the windows of nearby homes," Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, said in a recent statement. "These billboards devalue private property, distract drivers, tarnish the beauty of our natural and built landscapes and negatively impact the quality of life for many people."


Digital billboards typically are located on private land leased to billboard companies such as Clear Channel Outdoor, which in turn sell the ad space to businesses. The signs can be lucrative for billboard companies because they offer static messages that rotate every few seconds, meaning six to eight customers can advertise on a single billboard.

The Federal Highway Administration in 2007 issued guidelines on, among other electronic billboard standards, duration of message (8 seconds is recommended), transition time between messages (1 to 2 seconds recommended) and brightness (adjust brightness in response to changes in light levels). But it essentially left digital billboard regulation to states and local governments.

While some communities, like Clay County, Fla., have recently relaxed electronic billboard restrictions, activist groups in other communities are waging legal fights to shut them down.

On April 15, the same day as the Boston bombings, dozens of outdoor signs went dark in Los Angeles after a judge ruled that the original permits for the displays were invalid.

That decision was cheered by a group called Ban Billboard Blight, which says the city is "under siege" from the outdoor advertising industry.

While critics say the billboards are a dangerous distraction for drivers, the industry says studies have shown no link between the signs and higher accident rates.

As for the potential public safety benefit, Max Ashburn, communications director for Scenic America, said the electronic signs will display commercial ads "99 percent of the time."

"It's up to the communities around them to decide whether that's a trade-off they want to make," he told MSN News.


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