Digital billboards are a rapidly growing part of the commercial media arsenal, popping up along roads all across the country. 

Corporate marketers and even local law enforcement are already utilizing them in earnest, but “politicians seem to be learning at a slower pace,” says Tim Fuhriman, senior vice president of digital advertising at Clear Channel, which owns a sizable chunk of the digital billboard real estate. 

The reluctance of the campaign world to embrace the technology is something outdoor advertising executives are actively working to change ahead of the 2012 election cycle.

Fuhriman’s pitch—digital billboard technology is quickly becoming cheaper, more accessible and it offers real opportunity for campaigns that are willing to integrate it into their digital strategy. Television creative translates to the digital billboard format; not true of its static forerunner. And much like online advertising, messages can be tweaked quickly to take advantage of specific moments in the news cycle.      

“We can put it up in hours, no longer weeks and months,” he says of a digital billboard message. “And after it’s up, it’s just a simple keystroke to change the message.”

The typical sign changes every eight seconds and has several messages running like a carousel. Conceivably, a campaign could buy all of the segments, using each changeover to highlight a specific issue position or message. The messages are distributed over a network of signs so there’s geo-targeting potential, as well. 

“We have clients who will buy multiple spots and rotate their art,” said Fuhriman. “There’s no limit on creative, we just rotate through.”

Among the possibilities for campaigns moving forward—using wireless technology to advertise directly to drivers passing specific digital billboards or alerting supporters of nearby volunteer opportunities. 

While political media pros don’t dismiss the utility of the digital billboard outright, Fuhriman and his colleagues have some serious convincing to do. Given the plethora of inexpensive and highly targeted digital advertising options now available to campaigns, the natural question is what billboard advertising offers that other forms of digital outreach don’t. 

“Digital or not, billboards are still a blunt instrument in today’s very targeted world of campaigning,” says Ben Nuckels, vice president at Joe Slade White & Company, a Democratic media firm. For Nuckels, it’s hard to see what a digital billboard can do for your campaign that a TV ad or a targeted online message couldn’t do better.  

“There may be some geographic applications for GOTV purposes or novelty use,” says Nuckels. “But the fact remains that there are far more effective and efficient ways to reach voters.”

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.