The Rise of Digital Outdoor Billboards

Although it might be intuitively obvious when you think about it, most people have simply overlooked billboards as a growing advertising medium. Did I say “growing”? Well yes, I did. More and more highways and roads are being built. More vehicles are on the road, fuel costs and mass transit subsidies notwithstanding. Stuck in traffic? Sitting on a commuter rail or waiting at the shelter for the next public bus to whisk you off to work? Guess what. You’re staring at an advertisement. Increasingly, outdoor space is being used to serve multiple advertisements – tri-fold slat advertising, roll-away-screen advertising. But in case you haven’t noticed, digital billboards are beginning to pop up everywhere – New York City has them on the sides of buses and the tops of taxi cabs.

Makes sense. As consumers have taken more control over the advertising they see on the devices they use, what better place to capture attention than on a billboard you are simply staring at while you are waiting, traveling or driving to your next destination. So yes, digital billboards are growing even faster (see, for example, an article posted by the BBC news service in the UK entitled,Outdoor Advertising Goes Digital).  Not only that, but digital billboards provide the ability to alter messages at will and can be interactive – with QR Codes, Bluetooth sensors, RFID tags, SMS Text message promotions (to see some examples, take a look at the slides from my recent presentation at the 10th Annual SME Digital Forum – Rosenbaum Presentation).

Legal issues? Well first, there is the intrinsically public nature of billboard advertising generally – which means you have to be more sensitive to standards, community norms and specific regulations applicable to categories of advertising (e.g., municipal ordinances regarding tobacco advertising near schools, etc.). Plug number 1 – you should always consult your legal advisors when reviewing billboard advertising. For example, could this have been approved? The disclosures are there, after all!

OK, just kidding. But that said, a new issue has arisen regarding the safety of digital advertising for drivers. Flashing lights, moving images, animated sequences can be distracting. Well the debate isn’t all that new. (Digital Billboards Spark Safety Debate (2007)Digital billboards: Good business or danger to drivers? (2010)). Nor is it limited to the United States (e.g., Do digital billboards add to danger on UAE roads? (2009)).

Perhaps the increased number of digital billboards is raising concern that every roadway, bus shelter and available space outdoors will be consumed with Times Square-like illumination all the time. So far, studies report that digital outdoor advertising is safe. For example, see the March report of Watchfire Digital Outdoor entitled, “Digital Billboard Safety Confirmed“. The safety issue likely will continue to rear its head periodically, along with questions about propriety of certain types of ads served on digital billboards, and I assume the inevitable claim that the lights are keeping everyone in the neighborhood up at night – although on a long drive late at night, perhaps flashing lights are a good thing.

In any event, outdoor billboard advertising isn’t dead. It’s being transformed, along with all other forms of advertising and marketing. Need help from lawyers who understand both advertising and digital transformation? Reed Smith is the place to look. Feel free to call me, Joseph I. (“Joe”) Rosenbaum, or any of the Reed Smith attorneys with whom you regularly work.

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