Digital Signage & LED Billboards: Marketing Abilities & Safety Debate

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It seems strange to me that my home state of Oregon was the last state in the country to get LED billboards in some of our major cities. 

Oregon usually goes first in a lot of things, though I wasn’t even aware LED billboards were being used all that much in other states. Maybe it’s because other states haven’t had a huge amount of public debate about the usefulness and safety behind these innovative advertising methods as Oregon has been doing recently. And in that regard, Oregon may just snowball something relatively untapped: Getting people prepared for the sociological and destructive nature of these digital billboards so they can be tweaked to blend in with the surroundings that sometimes don’t fit.

People who live in areas that still look pretty much the same as they did 40 years ago feel that these digital screens make their communities look like Las Vegas and make the town or city feel sleazy. Of course, it’s not as if the LED billboards are showing flashy pictures of half-naked models in a Calvin Klein ad as you’d probably see in Times Square, NYC. It’s a chance for local businesses to advertise and be able to be on a rotation basis with other businesses on the same billboard thanks to the screen switching from one screen to another within a set pattern of seconds or minutes.

The counterargument usually is that it isn’t the advertising on the billboards it’s just how they look, the flashiness about them plus how distracting they’d be to drivers. A lot of Oregonians who’ve lived in the state for decades have long protested the use of even standard billboards as a blight to natural areas. That concern might be valid, especially back in the 1970’s when you’d travel up near the mountains and see billboards with the Marlboro Man or beer ads planted in a 100% natural area and probable wildlife roaming by thinking how gullible we human beings are to tobacco and beer companies.

Now that we’re not seeing as many cigarette or beer ads on standard or LED billboards, it turns more into a matter of how well these things can blend in without looking like we’re living in a “Minority Report” world. 

As you recall from that eerily-prescient Sci-Fi movie, Tom Cruise has to live in a world where every street corner has an LCD digital advertisement. He couldn’t escape it even with having to endure a digital animation on a cereal box in his home.

When all of this digital signage started it was pretty much snowballed from China where it’s said they now have well over 100,000 digital billboards and signs up now in every corner of their big cities.

The debates over the brightness level, fitting into the surroundings and distraction factor while driving.

In Oregon, the City Council is already starting public debates over how bright these LED billboards need to be during the night. A lot of people live near the most recent ones and don’t like to see something as bright as a UFO sticking out like a sore thumb over the rest of the city that’s hundreds of watts dimmer in light emanation at night. It’s great to have the ability to see digital images in amazing brightness and intense color on our TV’s, but a lot of people argue that LED billboards should be turned down at night if at all possible. Here my local area is already facing deficits and may not even respond to turning down the billboards at night that likely will raise energy costs tenfold for the city.

Nevertheless, the business angle is the primary focus and that’s what obsessed China over digital signage already back in the 1990’s when it became prevalent there. 

Most polls on this subject taken around the world say that people pay more attention to digital signage with an increased chance in an ADD culture of actually paying attention to the multiple ads for more than a few seconds. In the local area, these LED billboards usually keep people interested. People keep staring up at them when old billboards hardly cause a bat of an eye any more and easily blend into everything else now.

Yes, that’s one of the biggest debates now about digital signage in my area: People being so wowed by the LED displays that they don’t pay attention to the road or pedestrians around them. 

Most of the LED billboards are in extremely busy parts of town, too, so it’s a bit concerning in an age when people already have too many distractions in their cars. If it isn’t being distracted by an iPhone, it’s the pre-installed DVD player or that attractive wet bar in the back seat. Whatever the case, the debates are popping up all over here about what LED billboards will do in distracting people on busy roads. That’s not a good sign when we’re already dealing with too many road accidents from people not only distracted but not having any car insurance.

A lot of people say that digital signage is too hypnotic and that it leads people to things or compels them to buy something they maybe wouldn’t with ordinary signage. That’s any business’s dream, of course, and these LED billboards are going to not only make local businesses look more attractive in their advertising–it’ll also provide an opportunity for amber alerts and citizens who don’t necessarily own a business to eventually pay for special advertising or public service messages.

As with all things digital, though, you wish a lot of them could be produced in America instead of from overseas. All digital equipment has an imposing and sometimes ominous look that makes them stand out too much in a town or household where traditional surroundings still exist. Even HDTV’s have trouble blending in with a lot of people’s furniture without looking like some device from the 23rd century landed in your living room.

Within all the debates over LED billboards the companies that produce them (and most ARE American) design them so they’re perhaps less imposing with the areas they’re standing in. Despite America growing in leaps and bounds as a world of digital everything, we still have a lot of cities and towns that look traditional. Modern technology made to look like it was always here would be a smart part of city and urban planning.

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