Billboards are an old stand-by of the advertising industry. Now they are undergoing a 21st century metamorphosis. In urban areas and along the Interstates, including Interstate 10 around Ahwatukee Foothills, those roadside monsters are going electronic, despite community protests and adverse environmental impacts.
The Outdoor Advertising Association of America is excited by the trend, proclaiming that, "Digital advertising is one of the most dynamic and fastest growing areas in the outdoor advertising industry." They expect today's 800 digital billboards to mushroom to about 9,000 in just 10 years, which means you'll likely see them sprouting in your community.
The new digital displays work like giant TV screens, like what some call "Powerpoint on a pole." Rather than the static image of the past, a digital billboard flashes a different image every few seconds. The bright, rapidly-changing graphics light up the sky, demanding our attention, night and day.
While local folks from Montana to Durham, N.C., to Hollywood, Calif., have launched protests and legal fights to stop this new form of neighborhood blight, digital advertising has another less obvious downside. Just when every watt of power generated in the U.S. is becoming more precious, these billboards suck up a lot of juice.
The U.S. Green Building Council in Texas found that one full-sized (14 feet by 48 feet) digital billboard uses as much electricity as 13 average homes. Knowing this, the ad industry's prediction that there will be more than ten times as many of these billboards in a decade - a decade when we should be taking dramatic steps to cut energy use - is disturbing.
Why are these energy hogs popping up everywhere? The answer in a word: profit. While a single, digital billboard is expensive to install - perhaps costing $500,000 - and to run, advertising companies make a lot of money on each installation. Unlike a traditional sign, they can sell space to multiple advertisers, rotating through five ads per minute.
It's a good deal for advertisers, too. Placing an ad within the rotating electronic loop is much cheaper than the long-term lease of an old-style billboard. Since ads can be custom designed for a particular time slot, a restaurant can hype their lunch special during the morning hours, and make a pitch tailored toward dinner service later on.
If our society is going to make real energy conservation progress, get off foreign oil and minimize climate change, it is not enough to call for efficiency measures by individuals. The hard work of 50 families cutting their energy use by 25 percent is wiped out by just one new digital billboard.
The careful use of our remaining natural resources is at the heart of the principle of environmental stewardship. No matter how profitable digital billboards may be, they must also be evaluated on the basis of good stewardship, energy conservation and community justice. And this evaluation needs to be done now, before the new technology fills up the landscape.
The Rev. Peter Sawtell is executive director of Eco-Justice Ministries, an independent, ecumenical agency that helps churches answer the call to care for all of God's creation. Reach him at www.eco-justice.org.