With their PR machine at full throttle and uncritical media outlets willing to pass along the message, Clear Channel is out to convince everyone that public service ads running on the company’s digital billboards played a critical role in rescuing the chaparral-covered hillside around the iconic Hollywood sign from private development.
Suffice to say there is no way to either prove or disprove this claim. Unlike an ad for a product or service, there are no before and after sales figures to point to the effectiveness of the campaign, but only the fact that the Trust for Public Land succeeded in meeting a deadline for raising the $12.5 million needed to buy the 138 acres surrounding the sign.
Two other facts are equally clear: One, digital billboards have been under fire since they first began to appear in L.A. three years ago, for such things as light trespass in residential neighborhoods, creation of potential traffic hazards, excessive energy use, and change in community character. And two, Clear Channel and other companies have reacted to the rising tide of criticism by touting the importance of digital billboards in the delivery of public service messages and announcements.
Does the insertion of a eight-second public service spot in a rotation of 6-8 ads for movies, TV shows, fast food, and the latest electronic devices do such good as to offset the negative effects that are abundantly clear to, say, anyone living in a house or apartment where the ambient light at night changes with every new ad? Or the people urged to conserve energy who learn that a single digital billboard can use up to 10 times the energy of their house, or the drivers who approach a traffic signal set into the background of a brilliantly-lighted, changing sign?
One might ask another question: If Clear Channel’s 84 digital billboards in L.A. are such an important means of supporting causes like the preservation of open space, why didn’t the company disperse them widely throughout the city? The only digital billboard near the vicinity of the Hollywood sign is on Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood, and it’s owned by CBS Outdoor, not Clear Channel. (A Clear Channel digital billboard on Silverlake Blvd. was shut down by the company after complaints by neighbors and City Councilman Eric Garcetti). There are very few digital billboards in the San Fernando Valley, and virtually none in East L.A., or the vast swath of the city south and east of the 10 and 405 freeways. They are concentrated in West L.A., Westwood, and Venice, where two and even three can be found in the space of a single block.
Those areas happen to be among the most affluent in the city, which provides the obvious answer to why the most digital billboards happen to be there. Their business, after all, is to generate demand for products and services, not to get public service messages to the widest possible audience.
Other questions come to mind. If organizations like the Trust For Public Land are conceived to operate in the public interest, why such apparent blindness to, or disregard for, the environmental issues raised by digital billboards. Jay Dean, identified as the trust’s chief marketing officer, was quoted as saying, “Donating the billboards was an extraordinary gift from Clear Channel to the campaign.”
Was it an “extraordinary” gift? Or was it a kind of “greenwashing” by a company working the angles to offset negative public opinion? Was it a reflection of the fact that revenue for the outdoor advertising industry has fallen sharply in the past several years, and unsold space is available on those digital billboard networks?
A much more “extraordinary gift” to the Trust for Public Land or other organizations involved in obviously worthy endeavors would come from Verizon and other providers distributing public service messages on cellphones. Or from CBS and Fox and other networks putting the ads on prime-time TV, which would reach a far larger audience than some digital billboards on the city’s westside.
And for the sake of discussion, let’s say that the running of public service ads was adequate compensation for negative effects of digital billboards. Then it should be mandatory, with provision for access by a range of causes, not just those deemed worthy by the corporate heads of Clear Channel. After all, the term public service casts a very wide net, as seen from the ad below, on a Clear Channel billboard in Florida in 2004. The lettering along the bottom identifies the sign as a “public service message.”