Commentary: Electronic billboards are the signs of our times

Digital signs make advertising affordable for small businesses.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A billboard along I-15 in Salt Lake advertises the latest offering in West Wendover, Nev., where marriage license will be available for the first time on Valentine's Day. Before, one had to go all the way to Elko.

The Utah Senate last month considered legislation to allow modernization of certain billboards in the state. The measure failed.

During debate, one legislator, speaking in opposition, framed the question this way: “Who, besides the billboard industry, is served by being able to make these signs digital?”

That’s a good question for which there are hundreds of good answers.

One answer comes from a small contractor in Highland who specializes in finishing basements. He couldn’t afford outdoor advertising prior to digital technology. But now, he uses it regularly and has more work than ever before. Digital’s capacity to present messages at a much lower cost is a huge boost for small businesses’ ability to grow. For them, the economics of digital advertising is a real breakthrough and is in high demand.

Another answer comes from the many Utahns who today are learning the latest availabilities for COVID-19 vaccines from updates on digital billboards. The immediacy of digital displays contributes to our quality of life. Its public service extends to Amber Alerts, highway condition reports and extreme weather warnings.

Digital outdoor signs use the same LED technology that displays a picture on your TV. Digital signs are a major upgrade from the old signs created by brush and paint on paper. Digital signs are an upgrade from computer-printed vinyl signs still widely used today.

Messaging on digital signs is an advance for worker safety and environmental stewardship. The displays on digital billboards don’t require transportation, installation, removal or disposal.

The broader shift from mechanical to digital technology has been underway for decades. In nearly every aspect of our lives this digital revolution has driven down costs, simplified tasks, provided more choices, greater access and immediacy.

Technology has moved beyond rotary phones, hand-written airline tickets, library card catalogues, typewriters and Kodak home movies.

This was the context for Senate Bill 61.

To ask who, besides the billboard industry, is served by digital signs is akin to asking who, besides Google, is served by a better search engine.

Local businesses rely on effective advertising for their survival and growth. The greatest numbers of outdoor advertising clients in Utah are Utah businesses. Revenues from those businesses contribute to the critical tax base for every jurisdiction in the state. Those revenues provide jobs.

The state itself uses billboards to promote tourism and travel. Cities use billboards, universities use billboards, churches use billboards, and hospitals use billboards—all to convey information and values. It is unfair to deny them access to current technology to share their messages effectively. It also makes no sense.

The technology and economics of digital billboards open an affordable channel to the social service and non-profit agencies to communicate their messages. Digital billboards make possible more free public service announcements. Utah billboard companies, by the way, last year donated millions of dollars’ worth of community service advertising for causes ranging from drug abuse prevention, to food drives, to family crisis centers, to public safety campaigns, to recruiting service volunteers.

Utah’s billboard companies are part of the Utah community. All are home-grown, family-owned and headquartered here.

Outdoor advertising is highly regulated at the federal, state and local levels. A lack of familiarity with the complexities of those regulations frequently leads to misunderstandings and even misinformation in discussions and news reports about billboards.

For example, some reports said the recent measure would have allowed “flashing billboards.” That is simply not true. The digital highway billboards we are talking about display one static sign at a time. That’s federal law. It’s not up for debate.

Outdoor advertisers weren’t lobbying for additional billboards. No, not even for one. The proposal was not about permitting billboards on scenic by-ways. It was not about altering designated dark-sky areas. But that’s the kind of misdirection employed by opponents in a debate when the real issue is so unambiguously reasonable and clear.

The issue of fact is whether digital technology is the reality of our time.

The issue of fairness is whether jurisdictions that permit property owners to use digital signs on-site should permit the same technology to be used on existing, regulated billboards.

In other words, is it the 21st century for everybody?

Dewey A. Reagan

Dewey A. Reagan is president and general manger of Reagan Outdoor Advertising.

Weston Sanders

Weston Saunders is secretary of Saunders Outdoor Advertising.

Jeff Young

Jeffery S. Young is senior vice president of YESCO