Bridge Down: A Pivot Point for Digital Billboards

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The office was closed.  But from home, after regular business hours, a billboard employee with a laptop could override the copy on local digital billboards after Interstate-35W Bridge collapsed. This was more than a decade ago.

Within minutes, digital billboards communicated this stark message: BREAKING NEWS. 35W BRIDGE COLLAPSED AT DOWNTOWN MINNEAPOLIS.

This phenomenon, the immediate delivery of emergency information via digital billboards, was new.  Later that day in August of 2007, the copy was updated to tell motorists to use other routes. When national leaders arrived, they saw the billboards as evidence of community response.

“I still remember,” US Senator Amy Klobuchar said on the Senate floor two years later, “when Senator Coleman and I came in the very next morning – we flew in with the Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters – and there were already billboards up, literally 12 hours later, directing people . . .”


Klobuchar announced her presidential bid February 10, 2019, on the snowy banks of the Mississippi River near the 2007 bridge collapse. The quick rebuilding of the bridge, she said, shows that people of different parties can work together.                                                                                                                                 

Powerful New Communications Tool

Out-of-home (OOH) media and public-service messaging are long-time mates.  But billboards’ response to the 35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis helped usher in a new era of quicker, hyper-targeted communication.

Bill Ripp, chairman of the industry’s digital billboard committee, calls it an “aha moment.”

“It made us all realize that we had a new powerful vehicle to provide value to our communities,” says Ripp, a VP at Lamar Advertising Company.

By the end of 2007, the FBI began experimenting with donated digital billboards in Philadelphia, quickly apprehending fugitives.

The next year, the OOH industry formalized agreements with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to display AMBER Alerts and with the FBI to help find fugitives and missing children.

In June of 2008, Florida’s emergency agency announced a partnership to communicate on digital billboards. The state’s emergency manager, Craig Fugate, would lead FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) during the Obama Administration. .

“Digital technology enables quick delivery of emergency messages via high-tech billboards,” FEMA posted on its website, explaining the partnership in Florida. “Public-private partnerships harness these high-tech signs to inform the public about weather warnings, evacuation routes and safety-related information.”

Current FEMA Administrator William B. “Brock” Long concurs: “Use of digital signage along highways is part of the layering and unity of messaging to reach affected communities, and supplements radio and mobile alerts.”

Six years after the 35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, homemade bombs exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon.

FBI wanted re Boston bomb suspect

In a dramatic display of the communication method pioneered in Minneapolis, a series of state emergency messages appeared on digital billboards in metro Boston.  Then, as the manhunt intensified for a second suspect, the FBI used those same digital billboards to publicize the fugitive.

That’s the last decade or so of digital billboard history in a nutshell…now that’s see what they can do in our future.

About Author

Ken Klein, EVP of Government Affairs at the Oudoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), leads the industry department’s efforts with a particular personal focus on congressional relations. Klein was originally trained as a journalist. He joined the OAAA in 2001 after spending 25 years in media and government, including with the Florida Department of Transportation. Klein worked for Governor Bob Graham of Florida before moving to Washington, DC, when Mr. Graham was elected to the United States Senate. Klein served in various staff positions for Senator Graham, including chief of staff. He also served as the key staff person for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. He can be reached at kklein@oaaa.org

 

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