Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The World According to Clear Channel

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“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Attributed to Mark Twain, Benjamin Disraeli, and others

In its quest to save its digital billboards from court-ordered extinction, Clear Channel has employed a small army of lobbyists and public relations operatives to convince city councilmembers and their constituents that the digital billboards occupy a space on the scale of public good alongside clean air, healthy food, and a good education.

The councilmembers, with their wetted fingers to the political winds and their noses aloft to catch the fragrant scent of new revenue, haven’t questioned the claims that have gushed from the mouths of Clear Channel reps and adorned slickly-produced media in print and cyberspace. With the notable exception of a March 21 editorial in the L.A. Times, press coverage of the issue hasn’t done much to challenge even the most outlandish of the claims.

Here are some of those claims, followed by facts that may help shed light on what this billion-dollar, multi-national corporation is actually peddling to the credulous and not-so-well informed.

1) Clear Channel has been a member of the L.A. business community for more than 100 years.

Fact: This claim is made almost every time a Clear Channel spokesperson steps to the microphone at a public meeting, and it’s obviously intended to create favorable sentiment with those who might equate longevity with corporate responsibility. But Clear Channel was founded in San Antonio, Texas in 1972, and it didn’t own a single billboard in L.A. until 25 years later, when it acquired an outdoor advertising company called Eller Media. So what supports the claim that Clear Channel has done business here for more than 100 years? Eller Media was the successor, through several changes of corporate ownership, to Foster & Kleiser, a billboard company started in L.A. in 1901. For an idea of the flimsiness of Clear Channel’s claim, imagine the Italian automaker Fiat saying it has been part of the American auto industry since 1925 because it recently acquired the majority share of Chrysler.

2) Public hearings were held prior to allowing Clear Channel to put up digital billboards.

Fact: The lawsuit settlement agreement allowing Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor to convert 840 conventional billboards to digital was presented to the City Council in closed session on Sept. 13, 2006.┬áTo technically comply with California’s open meetings law, the council reconvened in open session to vote on the agreement, but there was no discussion or public comment preceding the vote. The agenda for that meeting referred only to a closed session requested by the City Attorney to discuss the lawsuit in question, but no member of the public could have known what was about to be passed, because the issue in that lawsuit wasn’t digital signs, but the amount of the fee the city was proposing to charge Clear Channel and other companies to conduct a city-wide billboard inventory and inspection. In addition, permits were issued for the 101 digital billboards now in operation without a single public hearing or even any notification to surrounding property owners.

3) Studies have repeatedly shown that digital billboards don’t have any negative impact on traffic safety by distracting drivers.

Fact: A comprehensive study conducted last year by a Swedish transportation institute found that digital billboards distracted drivers far longer than conventional signs, and as a result the Swedish government ordered the digital billboards on the country’s highways to be removed. Independent studies in the U.S. have raised questions about the safety of digital signs, and called for further research. Studies typically cited by Clear Channel as “proving” that digital billboards aren’t potential traffic safety hazards were commissioned by the outdoor advertising industry, and their methodology has been severely criticized by at least one nationally-known safety expert.

4) Clear Channel’s digital billboards are valuable ways to broadcast public service messages about natural disasters, freeway closures, lost children, criminals on the loose, election results, and sundry other important events and initiatives.

Fact: Clear Channel has 84 digital billboards in the city, but people regularly traveling major thoroughfares in a wide area of the city including South L.A., the San Fernando Valley, East L.A., and the San Pedro/Wilmington area won’t see them because they are concentrated in the city’s westside, hardly a coincidence given that it’s also the city’s most affluent area. The company has claimed credit for helping catch such criminals as the Grim Sleeper, and avoiding the worst-case scenarios of last year’s 405 “carmageddon”, but have offered no evidence to show that digital billboards actually played such roles. A reasonable person might conclude that the best way to reach large numbers of people in a wide area of the city would through TV and radio, but reasonable people may not be the intended audience for Clear Channel’s claims.

5) Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor agreed to demolish hundreds of conventional billboards in exchange for being allowed to convert some to digital.

Fact: The agreements with the city allowed the companies to convert a total of 840 conventional billboards to digital. In exchange, each company was required to demolish 49 existing billboards. And there was no requirement that the billboards slated for demolition be properly permitted or in compliance with their permits. The companies were also given credit for demolishing billboards already slated for removal to make way for the MTA’s Expo line, and for private development projects.

6) Professionally-conducted surveys have shown that people like digital billboards and consider them a valuable resource for the reasons stated in No. 4 above, as well as for stimulating economic activity and job creation.

Fact: The two L.A. surveys, conducted by Arbitron in December, 2008, and Voter Roll Call in January of this year, were both commissioned by the outdoor advertising industry, which makes the results hardly surprising. And one doesn’t have to be an expert in polling analysis to recognize how the questions were designed to elicit the desired responses. The Arbitron survey, conducted during the holiday shopping season, asked no questions about any negative aspects of digital billboards, but queried respondents on whether they thought digital billboards were “a cool way to advertise” and “a good way to learn about new products and services.” Nevertheless, when asked whether they would like to see more digital billboards on the area’s highways, the highest number of respondents, 34 per cent strongly disagreed, while only 20 per cent strongly agreed.

The Voter Roll Call survey was equally suspect in providing an objective look at people’s attitudes toward digital billboards. Again, no questions mentioning any negative aspects of digital billboards were included. The survey opened by asking how important people considered a number of issues, including jobs and economy, traffic congestion, public education and gang violence. The respondents were then asked to rate the importance of addressing issues related to digital signs and traditional billboards, and–big surprise–the other issues were considered more important. Other questions opened with statements about the importance of digital signs for public safety messages and so forth, then asked respondents if they considered this a positive use of the signs. No surprise, either, when the majority answered yes.

Three of the questions in this survey opened with the following statement: “The City of Los Angeles does not currently have an ordinance that regulates digital signs.” That was obviously intended to show respondents’ support for Clear Channel’s efforts to get the city to allow the company’s digital billboards to remain in exchange for some kind of revenue-sharing scheme. Unfortunately, the statement falls in the “damn lie” category, because the city’s sign ordinance does regulate off-site digital signs, i.e., billboards. It explicity prohibits them.

Dennis Hathaway

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