It was written off as a dead industry, particularly with the demise of tobacco advertising. It has been called a blight on the American landscape. It even earned the nickname “pollution on a stick.” But things have changed with outdoor advertising and we’re not talking about your father’s billboards.
Today, the outdoor billboard industry includes not just the small 8-sheet poster along your local rural road; it includes mammoth signs that tower above the tens of thousands of people who pass through Times Square each day. It includes rolling advertisements on the sides of trucks and buses. It includes a plethora of signage at speedways, and in sports stadiums. And it includes “outdoor furniture” signage comprised of bus shelters, benches and just about anyplace else where people congregate.
Like them or not, outdoor billboards are here to stay and the industry has never looked brighter. Overall spending on outdoor advertising is nearly $5 billion, a ten percent growth rate and more than double a decade earlier. Moreover, billboards are the place to see some of the most creative work in advertising, in spite of the fact that you have only a few seconds to capture the viewer’s attention. To those in the industry, outdoor is in.
A Mobile Society
Contemporary social trends favor billboards. Americans are spending fewer hours at home, where TV, cable, magazines, newspapers, books, and the Internet all clamor for attention. People are spending more time than ever in their cars – daily vehicle trips are up 110% since 1970, and the number of cars on the road is up by 147%. For most people stuck in traffic, the only media options are radio and billboards.
Anyone who is old enough to remember the old Burma Shave signs along the highway knows that outdoor billboards can be very engaging and today’s outdoor billboard industry contributes millions of dollars of space to various public service causes.
The new computer-painting technology used by the industry is making outdoor billboards brighter, more exciting, and upbeat. Their messages are typically more clever, humorous and artistic – there’s even a significant awards programs called the “Obie” to recognize outstanding outdoor creative, including a category for PSAs.
The new single-column structures have cleaner lines than the old telephone pole or I-beam structures, and are supporting and complementing today’s crisp, new, bright, architecturally-designed stores, buildings and malls. Outdoor sign holders
Like other rising stars of the information age, billboards have gone high tech. Digital technology developed at MIT has transformed the way billboards are made. Until the 1990s, most billboards were hand-painted on plywood. Quality was inconsistent and when paint faded and wood chipped, billboards became eyesores. Today, computer-painting technology has all but eliminated the old-fashioned sign painter, and plywood has given way to durable vinyl that can be cut to any size, then rolled into tubes for easy shipping. Huge graphics can be produced more quickly and at lower cost, and digital printing ensures faithful reproduction–so that an ad for Levi’s blue jeans looks precisely the same everywhere.
Billionaire John W. Kluge, a major force in the billboard business for four decades, brought computer painting to the market via his company, Metromedia Technologies. From 1959 to 1986, Kluge owned Foster & Kleiser, then the nation’s biggest billboard operator, and Metromedia is now the world leader in large-scale imaging. Other innovators are adding three- dimensional structures, digital tickers, and continuous motion to outdoor ads.
Even though outdoor is only two percent of overall ad spending, its effect is growing, particularly in one-of-a-kind locations such as Times Square and Sunset Boulevard, where exposure is impossible to calculate. Signs there can pop up on the news, in movies and in magazines, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the millions who walk through the areas weekly. “We can’t even tell an advertiser how many impressions they are getting,” says Brian Turner, president of Sherwood Outdoor, which sells 60 site “spectaculars” at One and Two Times Square and 1600 Broadway, making it the 12th largest outdoor company in terms of revenue.