MINNETONKA, Minn. — When officials in this Minneapolis suburb didn’t like the two eye-popping digital billboards that Clear Channel erected along the freeway, they pulled the plug. They had the power company cut off the electricity after just a few days.
That move in December sparked a court fight that local governments and the advertising industry alike are watching as digital billboards with fast-changing messages become more prevalent.
The glowing signs offer advertisers a tantalizing new means of cutting through the urban clutter. But some officials worry that the bright billboards, which display a new image every few seconds, are another dangerous distraction for drivers, many of whom are already multitasking behind the wheel.
“If you see a big bright screen and it’s flipping its image like a computer, that’s going to pull your eyes off the road for a couple seconds,” said Bill Steinbicker, a retired marketing executive who supports his city’s fight against Clear Channel, the nation’s biggest outdoor-advertising company.
Clear Channel has installed eight digital billboards in the Twin Cities and similar numbers in Las Vegas, Cleveland, Tampa, Fla., Milwaukee and Albuquerque, N.M. Other outdoor advertising companies are also incorporating more digital billboards.
Besides being eye-catching, the billboards offer versatility the old-style signs can’t match. For instance, sales can be advertised on a billboard as soon as they take effect. Or a fast-food restaurant could promote breakfast sandwiches in the morning and burgers at dinner time.
About 400 of the billboards have been erected nationally. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America estimates that will grow by 4,000 in the next decade.
In Minnesota, Clear Channel’s digital billboards change images every eight seconds. On a recent afternoon, a digital billboard on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis cycled from an ad for the TV show “24” to an ad for a local furniture store, to one for Burger King.
That eight-second timing is based on a Minnesota Department of Transportation study that showed roadside images that change at intervals greater than every six seconds aren’t a significant distraction to drivers, said Tom McCarver, a vice president for Clear Channel’s outdoor advertising division in Minnesota.
“Frankly, the greater distractions are inside the car — the cell phone, the kids in the back seat,” McCarver said.
Mike Pina, a spokesman for AAA in Washington, said the motor club does not have a position on the billboards. But he added: “We don’t like people to be distracted when they’re driving in general. We’ve got some concerns about cell phones, people messing with the radio. In general we think distracted driving is a problem. We think people need to be as focused as they can be.”
A just-released report from the U.S. Department of Transportation examined several studies on digital billboards and found the evidence of any hazard inconclusive.
That hasn’t stopped several cities from blocking the billboards while they study safety and aesthetic concerns. Besides Minnetonka, St. Paul and Des Moines, Iowa, have put moratoriums on digital billboards.
“If you see them at night they can be incredibly bright,” said Kathy Lantry, president of the St. Paul City Council. “I remember the first time I drove by one and it changed messages, I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s distracting.’ I’m not a fan.”
In Minnesota, Clear Channel recently started making digital billboards available for the display of Amber Alerts when children are feared abducted. McCarver said those plans were in the works before the legal dispute.
Minnetonka officials won the early round in that fight by arguing that the company put up the billboards before receiving the necessary permits.
A judge upheld the city’s right to cut the power, and Minnetonka swiftly passed its own moratorium on the billboards. Clear Channel is challenging the moratorium.
City officials, in the meantime, plan to revise billboard zoning laws that were written years ago, long before digital billboards.
“We don’t think we can block the advance of this technology. It’s certainly coming,” City Attorney Desyl Peterson said. “But we are certainly going to assert our right as a city to regulate it.”