“Media saturation changes…people’s experience of space so that it becomes abstract, dominated by signs and images that dispel meaning, history and presence.”
— Ackbar Abbas, author of Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance

Photo Illustration: James Porto

Photo Illustration © James Porto, 2010

While all of our senses may be engaged, generally it’s what we see that creates the most significant first impression and memory of a place. Visual communication is key to our mental mapping and distinguishes a place’s unique characteristics.

Few things are changing more quickly than communication tools, yet the laws to regulate communication in our physical environment are over a century old. Managed in the domain of planning and land-use, our regulations are oriented to cars and speed, when what we want to become is more pedestrian-oriented.

In the simplest terms, sign codes break down into two categories: signs and billboards. In the US, the laws rely on the terminology of on-premise (signs) or off-premise (billboards). On-premise means exactly that—signs that identify those businesses and institutions or their products and services that are on that property. Since local commerce is a community’s source for financial well-being and the life-blood of creating vibrant streets, the need for these establishments to clearly mark their locations, products and services is critical. By legal definition signs, which are locative, support the notion of place or pause.

On the other hand, off-premise or billboard advertising is not place-based; rather, these ads direct attention toward products and services in other locations or to no specific location at all. Historically, the scale and expense of billboards is intended to build national brand awareness. The most frequent ads are for beverages/alcohol, financial institutions and entertainment venues (casinos, theme parks, etc.). Mass communication of this scale is intended to dominate its environment and attract “eyeballs” (as defined by the industry) from vehicular traffic. This kind of ad buy was folded into land-use laws many decades ago for the basic cost of a sign permit, which is cheap. This bears little relationship to ad placement costs in other media (Internet, TV, print, etc.), and we suffer these forms of advertisement because we get something in return: free or inexpensive content. With off-premise advertising the community receives virtually nothing in exchange.

Static to Dynamic

Right now our world is moving rapidly from static to dynamic communication and from private to public information. The phenomenal speed of change is challenging our sign codes nationwide. Amazing advancements are now possible; video can stream through glass or mesh materials, while cameras or heat sensors follow our movements. Whether you know it or not, face recognition or intelligent chips are being embedded in public spaces and ad kiosks, so data as to where you are, where you went and when and what you did can be tracked and sold for commercial purposes.

Signs and Media

This new media is called Out-of-Home (OOH) or Digital-Out-of-Home (DOOH). For relatively little cost, it’s possible to wrap or cover buildings and command any streetscape with what are essentially large TVs on sticks. Evolving from static billboards, these large, animated media screens scream to gain our immediate attention through movement, brightness and distraction. An old-style, static billboard sells about 12 images a year. In comparison, the DOOH industry is aggressively seeking to “trade” static billboards for digital to project over 3 million images a year, using the equivalent power needed for 30 homes.

The rollout of digital media is happening across the country, and only recently has the public begun to understand this transition. What might seem novel at first becomes telling with recent changes seen in places like LA, Phoenix and Detroit. This year, Oregon changed its laws to permit digital advertising on its highways. With that said, citizens are successfully engaging the process and stopping the presumption that this kind of media should be allowed to occur anywhere without question; however, it’s unfortunate that cash-strapped governments entertain such changes because the billboard industry is way ahead of protesting groups with well-funded political and legal strategies.

It’s time for new thinking. Today, legal challenges from citizens are proving that communities can decide if they want billboards at all, of any kind. If a community is to choose billboards or embrace their digital transformations, perhaps government could consider an entirely different communications category apart from land-use: media in the public realm. If specifically zoned districts are set up to embrace the idea, then this could allow for more equitable valuation (taxation or shared revenues).

In our homes or at work, on our TVs or computers, we can click off bothersome ads. If we visit a place that uses new media in an interior application, say a hotel lobby or coffee shop, it’s our choice to be there or not. However, with outdoor media, we have a medium that can unwelcomingly command our attention. It will be there for the rest of our lives, and we can’t turn it off. This transformation is happening by default, not by design.