Digital Sign Blackout: Amen!

Saturday, 20 Apr 2013, 10:20:00 AM

Steve Stajich

Steve Stajich, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Steve Stajich, Columnist

We were driving back home to Santa Monica after sunset

from a weekend in the desert. We don’t usually make that journey after dark, so

maybe we were due for a few new experiences. At a certain point outside

Ontario, the 10 Freeway dipped under a bridge and became an array of orange

cones and various signage; the configuration that one encounters during “road

work.”

All of that was plenty to pay attention to. But emerging

from under the bridge, our eyes were then seared by a blinding white light. The

Second Coming? A massive nighttime welding job? Did Lindsay Lohan pull over so

the paparazzi could get some shots? Then I discovered the source of the

scorching white light: A digital sign on a tall pedestal aimed directly at our

oncoming lanes of traffic. 

The message was for a Ford dealership where apparently

somebody had pitched, “Let’s crank up the sign wattage, cause a bunch of

accidents… and then folks will need to buy new Fords!”

If that digital sign had a brightness control, then it

was set on 11 as per the amplifiers in “Spinal Tap.” There quite simply was no

way that amount of light beaming into the windshields of on-coming cars could

be legal. But we’re slowly learning more about legality and digital billboards.

The Los Angeles City Council and the City Attorney’s

office have been wrestling over digital billboards since at least 2009, when

the Council backed the issuing of digital and super-graphic sign permits for

the downtown area known as LA Live against warnings from the City Attorney’s

office that officials could be prosecuted if they allowed the signs to go

up. If you’ve driven by LA Live on the

freeway at night, you know there’s no shortage of brightly lit signage down

there right now.

Since then digital billboards around LA have been pushing

themselves all up into our ‘grills’ such that we now have the billboard

equivalent of the distraction provided by cell phone texting. We should

probably perform a test in which LA drivers are replaced with chimpanzees, just

to see if a monkey chewing a banana behind the wheel is any more or less

distracted than human drivers right now.

But put all that aside and ponder with me a future in

which “advertising,” all of it, is exalted or dumbed-down to the level of a

screaming child on an airliner. Say anything you want about those babies and

kids on planes, they get your attention. And this appears to be the new

aesthetic of advertising.

Facebook, which I never pretend is anything other than an

advertising platform, recently introduced ad copy that inserts itself right

into the post text column of the page. You can be in it for three or four

seconds before you realize you are not reading information from a “friend.”

Additionally, the ads appear to have been posted by your real friends. Imagine a conversation with your sister on

the phone, and suddenly out of nowhere she says, “I find those new Blazin’

Buffalo and Ranch Doritos to be really tasty!” Only it’s not her fault: Product

placement moved from television shows to your daily routines.

That’s why the news last week that a judge was ordering

the plug pulled on 77 digital billboards across Los Angeles was like getting

rainfall in Texas. The L.A. Times

reported that the judge’s order covered 80 signs. Of course Clear Channel, CBS

Outdoor, and the other companies operating digital billboards will resist. But

there’s a growing sentiment that the agreements between the City of Los Angeles

and the digital billboard companies are illegal deals.

What parts of your world should be protected from

becoming an advertising carnival midway? Humans like bright lights; as with sunshine by day, bright lights at

night give us some feeling of well-being and security. And there can be

something almost unifying about the global Esperanto of product names and

logos. But aren’t we owed the right to be away from all that during the lion’s

share of our waking hours? Some might argue they like the information digital

billboards provide while waiting out a red light; news about new TV shows or

hair care products. Really? Have you simply given up on having your own brain

provide something to think about during a wait at a red light?

I don’t know if LA can put the digital sign genie back

into its brightly lit lamp. But I do believe that we’re not meant to move

through our visual world as though we are hamsters doomed to crawl through

plastic tubes in some advertising science project. 

Clear Channel spokesman David Grabert said in the L.A. Times that “Turning off these

signs, even temporarily, hurts the community and the economy of the City of Los

Angeles.” I challenge Grabert to demonstrate how turning off digital billboards

“hurts” the community. If you are ready to make that presentation Grabert, I

hope you’ll find some way to let everybody know about it besides beaming it

brightly into my face.

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