Do you use Waze? Billboards Are Spying on You!

It’s not only digital billboards that can collect information from passing drivers. Old-fashioned static signs too are already being linked to the smartphones of passing drivers.

If you are using Waze and you pass a “Geo-fenced” billboard, that billboard will send its graphic content to your smartphone screen, duplicating the billboard’s message, and suggest that you go to the nearest branch of the business advertised. No, we are not making this up! It is being done on a trial basis in Southern California already, a partnership between Waze and McDonald’s.      

Here’s how it works:  You stop for more than 4 seconds at a traffic light near a McDonald’s billboard, and the billboard content appears at the top of your Waze screen, together with directions to the nearest McDonald’s.

It’s making money for the company. During a two-month period last year, 1.9 million unique users passed these Geo-fenced billboards in SoCal, and 8,400 people actually clicked on the duplicated billboard on their screen, changed their destination, and drove to a McDonald’s.

This makes driving more dangerous for all of us. This app is causing thousands of people every day to look even longer at their cell phones while they’re driving.

The service is called Zero-Speed Takeover. It’s one of the many methods that Waze uses to integrate ads into your driving experience, along with arrows, pins, and promoted searches.

It’s yet another reason to oppose billboards along any roadside.

Action Alert: Graphic Ads on Cars

Los Angeles is about to suffer an invasion of a new kind of advertising.
But it’s still possible to stop it. Maybe you have seen the digital ad signs on top of taxis, Uber and Lyft cars in the city. Here’s how they look:

These signs change every 8 seconds, just like digital billboards. Some of them are even animated. They’re made by a startup called Firefly, which just got $21 million in venture capital for a pilot launch in S.F. and L.A. Drivers can voluntarily bolt one of these atop their cars and earn money for each day driven.
Do we have to put up with this?
We already have ads on bus benches, bus shelters, street furniture, and businesses. Not to mention the thousands of billboards that litter our streets. These new Firefly signs have started to appear, taking digital advertising into literally every residential neighborhood in the city.
Maybe not.
The City Attorney filed a brief late last year saying that these signs violate the California Vehicle Code, because flashing, changing, and animation are prohibited on vehicles other than turn signals. And then L.A. Council Members Blumenfield and Harris-Dawson wrote a motion (Council File 19-0104) urging the City Council to follow state law and instruct the LAPD to start enforcing a ban on these signs. Thank you, council members.
The lobbyists rose up.
Of course they did. Firefly commissioned a legal brief which alleged that the City Attorney was misinterpreting the Vehicle Code. And that the signs are a source of revenue for drivers. And that the signs can be used for emergency and public service announcements (as if we needed them).
It’s time for you to rise up.
The council members’ motion is now before the City Council Transportation Committee. It needs some positive reinforcement. Send an e-mail message like the one below to the committee secretary: john.white@lacity.org and mention the case file in your subject line: 19-0104. Send a copy to your own council member also if you like.
Here are some points to raise:
Dear Mr. White
Please convey to the members of the Transportation Committee my support for the motion offered on 1-29-19 by Council Members Blumenfield and Harris-Dawson. I too oppose the incursion of an entirely new form of digital advertising onto our streets. These “Firefly” signs are dangerous, ugly, distracting, and even illegal under the California Vehicle Code. Our visual environment is already burdened enough with the clutter of advertising, and these signs will take rotating digital ads into every neighborhood of the city, including residential neighborhoods where they have never been before. We need to stop this now before it spreads any further.
Do it soon.
The motion will come before the Transportation Committee in the next few weeks, and then it will go to the full council. The time to write is now.

Museum of Modern Art Joins Blighted Ad Stream

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has begun supplying digital images to Outfront for use in the ad company’s screens in MTA subway stations in New York City and elsewhere. While one can understand MoMA’s urge and need to show art to lots of people, there is a downside to doing this.

1. The images are of low quality. They will give only the barest idea of what a work of art looks like at low resolution, and they are cropped misleadingly. Is this the sort of art that MoMA wants people to see? Such watered-down and cropped-up images are extremely remote from the experience of the works themselves.

2. Routinely in public hearings and official memoranda, representatives of billboard companies point to these momentary instances of “public service” as a redeeming value to weigh against the distraction, energy drainage, and visual blight that digital billboards bring for the other 23:55 per day. MoMA’s joining this stream, with these images of questionable quality, makes our work of opposing visual blight more difficult.

3. The sign companies are the ones deciding the amount of “public service” to place on these signs, not the public. If there were actual negotiations between public bodies and sign companies about how much non-commercial messaging would be included (as a condition for continued operation of those signs), then the public service element would be larger and more meaningful. As it is, market conditions and the company’s best interests will dictate how many MoMA works are displayed, at what hours, and for how long. The works appear at their whim, and may disappear similarly. Moreover, the MoMA imagery will appear in a flow along with other material which the museum cannot control. Why would MoMA want Vincent van Gogh to appear just after an ad for a personal injury attorney or some other blaring statement?

4. According the the Outfront news release, “people may start to feel overwhelmed and tune out as screens proliferate their daily lives. [Outfront] is hoping more engaging models of content and ad delivery can help mitigate that effect.” In other words, the company is deciding how much visual blight people can tolerate, and regulating the content to keep it just short of the “overload” level. Why is MoMA collaborating in this effort? In short, why is MoMA playing into the hands of the sign companies?

In conclusion, It’s very difficult to see how participating in the Outfront digital ad stream with low-quality imagery fits in with the MoMA mission statement, which includes “the encouragement of an ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art.”

Patrick Frank, President

It’s Back: Digital Billboards on Freeways

AB 1405, the bill that would allow digital signs including advertising on California’s freeways, is back before the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. The author tweaked it to make it more palatable to cities, but it’s still a very bad bill that will open the door for digital ads on stretches of highway where they have never been before. The hearing will take place on Tuesday, June 26. This is the bill’s final chance to pass this session, so if it fails in committee on Tuesday, it’s done for the year. If you have not weighed in on this–and even if you have–now is the time to act.

What to do: The legislation is AB 1405, The Advanced Digital Network Act, sponsored by Kevin Mullin. It’s before the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Send letters via e-mail to the committee via the secretary Katie Bonin: katie.bonin@sen.ca.gov or fax to 916-445-2209.

Update: Digital Billboards on Freeways

There’s good news about AB 1405, the plan to insert digital billboards among California’s highway road signs. The bill was scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, June 19 before the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, but it was pulled from consideration at the last minute by its sponsor, Assembly Member Kevin Mullin. This means that the threat is over, for now. To all who wrote in to Sacramento to express opposition to AB 1405, thank you. We will remain vigilant, because this monster could come back like a sequel to a Grade B horror movie.

Patrick Frank, President

New Smart Billboards Will Bring “Big Brother” Ads

 

If you needed another reason to oppose digital billboards, this could be it. At least two companies are today creating new digital billboards that use tracking data gathered from cell phones and car GPS devices, linking that data with demographic information, and using all of that data to target digital billboard messages at locations where specific demographic groups congregate.

Yes, that’s right: The companies gather data on what sorts of people pass by the locations with billboards that they control (seniors, Latinos, commuters, youth, males, etc.) at what times of day, and customize their display ads to reach them.

One of the companies, GeoPath, calls itself an “audience location measurement” firm. Here is how they describe what they do: “By processing and incorporating many industry-changing data sources such as connected cars, weather data, population growth factors, and the locations & trips of hundreds of millions of anonymous mobile devices, our systems will be able to do things like respond to seasonal, daily, & hourly variation, provide post-campaign delivery information, and much more.” So if your smartphone has location services enabled for any app at any time, or you are using GPS in your car, GeoPath will suck up that data and use it to target billboard ads to where you are going.

The other firm, Accretive Media, controls more than 100,000 screens across the United States, a number that’s sure to grow. It claims that it has the richest consumer data set available today, “combining people-based consumer profiles with geotemporal mobile information.” Accretive media “balances intelligent targeting with mainstream appeal, leveraging rich deterministic information to make outdoor messages impactful, targeted, and real.”

For example, a heavy rush-hour flow of males between the ages of 18 and 25 might convince a fast-food chain to buy placement on a digital billboard from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m near its locations. These firms are basically doing on billboards what is already done in your web browser: Targeting ads to you based on demographic information and preferences that you show by your internet behavior.

Did you consent to have your information shared this way? It’s already happening.

Digital Ads on Freeways: The Latest Bad Idea

Digital Billboard Ads could be coming to California Freeways if a bill now before the State Senate becomes law. The above picture came from a Caltrans report favoring the idea that was released on April 16. Caltrans has teamed up with a couple of select billboard companies to actually propose this ugly and dangerous idea as a means to raise money by selling ads on highway roadside official signs.

 This is what the ads would look like. Alongside the usual traffic notices, or even mileage distances, we would get changing digital advertising alongside Caltrans controlled freeways. The proposal so far is for a pilot project, but even this idea should be shot down before it gets any further. Caltrans justifies the trial by pointing to the FHWA study which allegedly found that digital billboards are safe. But we all know that that study was never properly peer-reviewed, is flawed, and is outdated because of the increasing in-cockpit driver distractions that come from on-board touch screens, direction finders, and cell phones.

More recent 2015 studies have found that digital billboards resulted in 25% to 29% higher crash rates near such signs in two states, Alabama and Florida. So Caltrans and the billboard companies are deliberately putting drivers and passengers in danger with this proposal.

Caltrans does not even need the money. The state budget has been in surplus for several years, even while the rainy day fund increases.

And California drivers do not need the distraction, danger, and mere ugliness of more ads.

What to do: The legislation is AB 1405, The Advanced Digital Network Act. Right now it’s before the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, chaired by Jim Beall. Send letters via e-mail to the committee via the secretary Katie Bonin: katie.bonin@sen.ca.gov or fax to 916-445-2209.

Draft Citywide Sign Ordinance: It’s Ridiculous

The City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM) has finally come up with the text of a proposed Citywide Sign Ordinance, and it realizes many of our worst fears.

The new bill (Council File 11-1705) unveiled on Dec. 12, allows new digital signs outside the high-density commercial Sign Districts. Specifically, it allows such billboards in almost any type of commercially-zoned business property. This means that if the bill passes in its present form, the sign companies could erect a new digital sign, with messages changing every 8 seconds, on nearly any commercial lot that they deem worthy.

It also allows on-site digital signs, which promote the specific company where they are sited, something never envisioned in previous drafts of this legislation.

The numerous studies that show a correlation between digital billboards and driver distraction that causes collisions are all being ignored by the PLUM committee. Likewise, the committee is ignoring aesthetic and environmental concerns.

But wait, there’s more: Tucked into the language of the bill are a few subtle gifts to sign companies.

There is no prohibition on billboards of any kind, digital or static, in city parks.

Sign companies could request an exemption to the rules and make any sign up to 20% taller or larger.

There’s also a specific exception for the continuation of the huge supergraphic signs in the Greater Downtown Housing Incentive Area, which would be otherwise prohibited elsewhere in the city. This clause of the bill (14.4.24) seems to refer to the supergraphics on the exterior of the Hotel Figueroa, which is located, guess where, in PLUM Chair José Huizar’s district.

In sum: If you care at all about urban aesthetics, traffic safety, environmental light pollution, or energy conservation, then you have literally nothing to cheer about in this legislation. It is not final yet, so in the meantime we will be doing all in our power to deflect this missile before it hits its target, which is your eyeballs. Join us by sending your views to the PLUM Committee (Zina Cheng,  clerk.plumcommittee@lacity.org). Use the Council File number in the subject line, and request that your comments be added to the record.

Patrick Frank, President

Citywide Sign Ordinance: A Struggle Looms

by Patrick Frank

Public safety, aesthetics, and the will of the people continue to get short shrift at the City Council Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee, as it caves to the powerful billboard lobby. After years of hearings and reports, the committee on May 31 gave instructions to the City Attorney to finally draft a new Citywide Sign Ordinance that will govern billboards, known legally as off-site signs (Council File 11-1705). We should all enjoy the dark night skies while we can, because if this bill becomes a law, digital billboards will be going up in all kinds of new places, flashing messages in our faces every 8 seconds.

The committee was working from a draft bill devised by the City Planning Commission (CPC) in late 2015. That draft was a fair compromise between billboard companies, advertisers,  and citizens’ rights to a livable and safe visual environment: It permitted digital billboards only in sign districts located in high-intensity commercial zones. Moreover, a company that wanted to erect a digital billboard it had to take down ten times that square footage in traditional static billboards elsewhere. There was no provision for amnesty for any of the 900-plus static billboards in L.A. that lack effective permits.

That was then. PLUM has turned the CPC recommendations into something unrecognizable. Digital billboards would be permitted both within sign districts and outside them, in any land use zone that includes the word “Commercial,” which would take in most major streets and intersections. The approval process would be through the relatively loose Conditional Use Permit. Instead of a 10:1 takedown ratio, PLUM would institute a sliding scale, from 2:1 to a maximum of 8:1. The difference in each case would come from contributions by sign companies to city-run fund: they could pay more in order to take down less.

The PLUM committee calls this kitty a Billboard Blight Reduction fund, which is deeply ironic. The fees for each billboard would be paid once, but the billboard would reap profits for the company for decades. In effect, PLUM is selling your eyeballs. While the fund is meant to help pay for street improvements, the tradeoff is too great a price to pay for things which the city could and should fund itself through an appropriations process.

There are other plums in this pie for billboard companies. PLUM for the first time introduced language to permit digital on-site signage. This is a new subject worthy of an open and transparent conversation with stakeholders from all communities, as new digital signage on storefronts would radically alter community character in many neighborhoods. There has never been any discussion about a policy to permit digital on-site signs and, in fact, CPC intentionally separated the policy discussions of off-site and on-site signage. PLUM also included a provision to allow digital billboards on city-owned property. In sum, the PLUM instructions would allow digital signs both on businesses and on billboards located almost anywhere a sign company might like to have them.

Besides the obvious aesthetic arguments against digital billboards, a growing number of studies have shown that they contribute heavily to driver distraction and accidents. Thus, this ordinance flies in the face of Vision Zero, the city’s new program for reducing traffic fatalities.

Lurking behind this proposed legislation is a bushel of campaign contributions. Billboard companies in the past have given free advertising space to several of the PLUM committee members (Huizar, Englander, and Harris-Dawson) in support of their election campaigns, and cash contributions to all. In gratitude, PLUM members have practically jumped into their pockets. The final bill will be unveiled sometime this fall.

The CPC, probably shocked at what their legislative proposal has become at PLUM, revoked its delegation of the bill in late July. A highly unusual step in city government, this means that whatever PLUM does will have to go back to the CPC for comment and approval. So this struggle is a long way from over.

Oppose Digital Billboards on Public Property

As part of its dragged-out process of rewriting the ordinances governing billboards citywide, the L.A. City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM) is about to receive a report on how the city can install digital billboards on city-owned property. Today I submitted the following memo for the record in opposition to this idea. If you don’t want to see billboards on city-owned buildings and properties, send an e-mail to the PLUM assistant: clerk.plumcommittee@lacity.org and ask them to add your message to the public record in Council File 11-1705.

To the Members of the PLUM Committee: You are about to consider a report on the idea of allowing digital billboards on City property. The Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, representing the many thousands of individuals in every council district who care about the visual environment of this city, resolutely oppose any billboards, digital or otherwise, on city property. The reasons for this are at least fivefold:

  1. Most digital signs on city property will lie outside of any recognized sign districts, in less regulated zones, without the consideration afforded to signs inside such districts. Traffic patterns, immediate surroundings, and local property considerations will likely take a back seat to the fact that a possible spot for a digital sign is city-owned and thus a potential revenue generator. Revenue generation will, we fear, supersede many other local considerations such as environmental, safety, and aesthetics.
  2. Having digital signs on city property puts city officials in the position of choosing winners and losers. Advertising on city property carries, for good or ill, the impression of city approval. Having the power to decide who gets to advertise on city property opens an avenue for undue influence over city government business, possibly leading city officials to view more favorably any related proposal or matter before them. There is no basis for confidence that future city officials will resist this influence; they may, in fact, abuse this power.
  3. The assertion that public good can come from such digital signs on city property is far less than credible. There are many avenues for public service announcements in this day and age, without mixing such announcements with advertising at a massively unfavorable ratio.
  4. An increasing number of peer-reviewed studies link digital signs to driver distraction which contributes to accidents. Thus, installing such signs on city property works directly against the city’s Vision Zero regarding traffic fatalities.
  5. Because digital signs are very difficult to remove, what you decide on this question will stand for many years. As Abraham Lincoln said, “We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.” The members of this municipal government will be remembered for what they do in office, whatever their actions, political stripes, or persuasions. You are now determining what you will leave behind for future generations of residents of this city. For what would you like to be remembered? For bringing digital visual blight to numerous communities? For embedding yet more commercial appeals in an already oversaturated environment? For weakening the safety of our streets by implanting further distractions in them? To ask such questions, we submit, is to answer them.

Patrick Frank, President

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