Media consultants aren’t the only doubters. A host of safety and privacy advocates have raised objections to digital billboards more generally and some community groups across the country are fighting to keep them out of certain locales. Depending on who you talk to, digital billboards are a traffic hazard, an environmental nuisance and a financial drain for nearby residents who claim they hurt property values.
“If as a candidate you’re trying to come across as in the know [on the environment], why would you be on a digital billboard that uses more energy than 30 houses?” asks Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, a nonprofit group dedicated to maintaining the “visual character” of the nation’s communities.
Some cities, including Denver, San Francisco and Durham, N.C. have banned digital billboards outright, citing safety worries. A number of other localities across the country have proposed bans and a handful of others have instituted temporary moratoriums on the billboards until officials can study the safety implications further. All reasons that candidates might be wary of making use of the billboards for political advertising, even if they see it as an effective message driver.
For a voter with an opinion on digital billboards, argues Tracy, the sight of one blasting a political message could have an unintended backlash on a candidate or campaign. “The public doesn’t know the billboard company, but they do know the advertiser,” she says.
The advertising industry says it’s aware of the concerns, noting that extensive planning goes into digital billboard placement and that environmental and safety considerations are a major part of the planning process. Despite the skepticism, advertising insiders and trade groups like the Outdoor Advertising Association of America plan to keep making the pitch to the political world and boast data they say backs up their claims about the real potential for effectiveness.
The outdoor advertising industry says its metrics are proving that more consumers are looking at the signs. And it claims that Eyes on Impressions (EOI) is more accurate in measuring actual viewership and able to break down specific demographic information on consumers.
Fuhriman thinks political campaigns are on a bit of a slower learning curve when it comes to understanding the potential of digital billboard advertising. The small number of political campaigns—almost entirely local ones—that have used the technology, do so for just a few weeks ahead of Election Day. Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) campaign made use of the technology during his special election race in 2009—one of the highest profile campaigns to utilize digital billboards.
Major brand entities that employ digital billboards are constantly tweaking and changing messages to match the medium and figure out what works. The technology could offer your campaign’s message a little more kick, say proponents of the billboards. But it could also be the last message a voter sees before entering a polling place, which might just be holding some campaigns back.