These Signs Leave Tracks

There I was sitting in the Austin airport, minding my own business. The Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) conference had been excellent and I was heading home. But that headline in the New York Times beckoned: “Billboards That Look Back.”

OK, I bought the paper. Great article on the surface, covering newly-released technologies that track facial expressions of viewers of digital signs, whether interior or exterior. Two companies were mentioned, TruMedia Technologies, Inc., and the French supplier, Quividi. See www.tru-media.com and www.quividi.com for details on these tracking technologies.

I See Your Face, But I Don’t Remember It
Digital signage networks will profit handily, as an advertising medium, from such advances in counting viewer impressions. So, TruMedia and Quividi are wished well. But that is not the problem, the legal and policy problem, which the New York Times explored. Instead, it is that these technologies are currently capturing only anonymous and unidentified faces.

But how secure is this commitment to anonymity? Couldn’t the U.S. government, in the name of homeland security, ask for more details? These issues are already starting to receive legal challenges. Google received complaints related to privacy when it introduced its Street View technology. In response, the company has pledged to blur faces of people captured in the photographs of street-level images used in its mapping service.

Or, enter the divorce attorneys. They’re already keen on discovering cell phone records and credit card charges against the other spouse, why not camera impressions from admittedly public places? “Mr. Smith, I realize you said you were at your fishing lodge in Land of the Wool Socks on the night in question. But this photograph, clearly date-stamped, shows you staring at the digital screen at Jack’s Deli in your hometown as it displayed the Penguins-Red Wings final score. How do you explain your whereabouts?”

But I digress.

“Digital Billboards Encounter Criticism”
What really captured my attention was not how the article started but how it ended. The reporter, Stephanie Clifford, after a competent summary of the viewer-counting technologies and its impact on advertising effectiveness measurement, turned her sights here:

“Even without cameras, digital billboards encounter criticism. In cities like Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, outdoor advertising companies face opposition from groups that call their signs unsightly, distracting to drivers and a waste of energy.
“There is a dispute over whether digital billboards play a role in highway accidents, and a national study on the subject is expected to be completed this fall by a unit of the Transportation Research Board.”

How did we segue from ad effectiveness to personal privacy to traffic safety so quickly?

Unless you have a strong constitution, don’t Google “billboards cause accidents.” The rants and raves go on endlessly. At the same time, we have what amounts to the proverbial “urban myth” being promulgated by individuals and groups. Their argument boils down to: you’re driving; you see a billboard in the distance and look away from the road to read its message; in that split second, a traffic accident might occur.

Because the relevant time period for this “driver look-away” is one to several seconds, traffic research and something called “human factors” has become critical in any rational analysis of the effect of billboards and accidents. Adding digital technology to the mix increases the stakes for each side in the debate.

On one side, obviously, is the billboard industry, represented by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) and its related research foundation. Last year, two major empirical studies were published regarding digital billboards and traffic safety.

“Digital Billboards Are Safety Neutral”
The first came from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and concluded that from a driver’s viewpoint, digital billboards were “safety neutral.” The other was from a consulting engineering firm, Tantala Associates. Tantala examined accident data from Cuyahoga County, Ohio and found no correlation between the presence of digital billboards and accidents. It summarized, “Accidents are no more likely to occur near digital billboards than on highway sections without them.”

Fair enough, don’t you think? Except, there is another side (with lots of opinions) in the argument. I recommend you look at the following link: http://www.nahba.org/members2/documents/recentnews/TRB%20Workshop%20on%2...

This presentation was made to the Human Factors Workshop of the Traffic Research Bureau in January by Jerry Wachtel of The Veridian Group, Inc. Here are his six reasons why digital billboards are “causing safety concerns”:

“Their brightness at night: can overpower driver’s ability to see TCDs, brake lights; can cause glare—temporary blindness; can attract eye gaze from enormous distances

• High visual fidelity can attract and hold attention longer
• Periodic image change can have visual effect of flashing
• Messages can be ‘sequenced’ to hold attention longer
• No acclimation; displayed message can be always novel
• Targeted messages can be very distracting—e.g. current score of the game; win concert tickets”

Driver Performance, Aesthetics and Visual Clutter
The presentation reviewed fairly objectively all of the relevant research, from the 1960s to current. One set of studies mentioned by Wachtel deals with “visual clutter.” He cites Pottier/INRETS from the 1990s and ongoing Australian research (Edquist/Monash University) to make this point:

“There is a link between judgment of aesthetics and visual clutter; driver performance in tasks such as road sign detection is poorer, and requires more time, in environments that are high in visual clutter.”

Wachtel added, “We are not aware of similar work being done in the U.S.” This seems like a good moment to introduce into the discussion the impressive and still-growing portfolio of empirical traffic safety research sponsored by the United States Sign Council Foundation, see http://www.usscfoundation.org.

For any in the on-premise sign industry still uncertain of the value of the USSC research, I would suggest a sober look at the forces arrayed not just against the billboard industry, which has the resources to look after its own interests, but also against the on-premise sign industry. Wachtel ends his presentation with these two slides:

“Help for Local Governments Needed: They ask: How do standards for highway applications get applied to the local level on city streets and in residential neighborhoods—the driving task is different; lower speeds, pedestrians, traffic signals, uncontrolled access”

What About On-Premise Signs: On-premise signs have traditionally been given total freedom of design and operation; but DBBs (digital billboards) are increasingly used on-premise; if we confirm that characteristics of DBBs do cause dangerous levels of distraction, can we continue to ignore on-premise signs?”

Houston, we have a problem.

The beginning of the solution for the on-premise sign industry? First, understand the parties across the table from us, and their entrenched mindset. Second, get to common ground with our adversaries on as many issues as possible. Finally, don’t depend on the billboard industry to help out the on-premise sign industry in this major debate — its interests are too separate, involving too much revenue—to expect otherwise.

The Fine Print: This column is meant to explore issues of importance to the sign industry, and your business. I am not offering legal advice. Consult with your attorney or other business advisor before considering any of the ideas discussed in this column.