The exponential growth of Digital Out of Home (DOOH) advertising over the last few years has not been without controversy. In urban areas across the world, screen providers, residents, and city officials are locked in a debate around the role of digital advertising in public spaces, with many questioning the extent and size of digital advertising screens.
In Melbourne, Australia, city officials recently refused a proposal for 81 super-sized digital ad embedded pay phones after community consultation. The proposal was built upon a partnership between JCDecaux and Telstra Australia, with pay phones designed to display four digital advertisements per minute. Critics questioned their size and location and called them “digital billboards masquerading as phone booths” with a similar dispute in Sydney.
“These splashy, moving displays create a distraction for drivers and watercraft operators, as well as cyclists and pedestrians in crowded waterfront areas, posing a significant safety hazard. They also significantly degrade the view enjoyed by those using parks and other public spaces along the water and the waterways themselves, impairing the public’s enjoyment of those important places. Moreover, the bright, dynamic billboards intrude on the private spaces of large numbers of residents and office workers with views of the water.”
In Los Angeles, local government wants to ban digital billboards atop personal vehicles. Some Lyft and Uber drivers are supplementing their income by displaying these ads, with some earning more as a display provider than as a driver. (Interestingly, taxi-top ads were introduced in 1975, and don’t suffer the same level of ire as those utilized by their gig economy counterparts.)
While it could be suggested that these disputes are simply between elected officials and lawmakers that are out of touch with urban progress, the reality is more complicated.
Smart Cities and Digital Advertising Have Grown up Together
Since the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, sensor technology, and the Internet of Things (IoT), we have seen smart cities around the world develop, underpinned by the notion that connected technology can not only make a city more progressive, but also generate data to create insights that can improve the safety, quality of life, and economic opportunities for those that live, work, or visit a city. The intention is a ubiquitous stream of connected services including waste collection, traffic management, street lighting, mapping, and local government services. The first smart street light that brightened and dimmed according to the movement of cars, cyclists, and pedestrians was created in Oslo in 2006 while smart cities were raised as a broader concept in 2008 and trademarked by IBM in 2011.
DOOH advertising has followed a similar trajectory. The first digital billboard was developed in 2005, and the following 14 years have seen the industry evolve largely due to the convergence of IoT, edge computing and data analytics. We see large billboards in shopping centers, airports, and busy public spaces in addition to displays atop cars and pulled by bicycles.
Smart Cities Already Enjoy a Successful Public-Private Partnership with Advertisers
Smart city funding is a persistent pain point. Most smart city developments are still in their relative infancy, typically reliant on government grants and years away from a commercial rollout and real ROI. Those that succeed are typically funded through grants or in-kind benefits from software, telco, or utility companies.
In New York, LinkNYC has rolled out thousands of smart kiosks called Links across the city. They each provide free high-speed Wi-Fi, phone calls within the U.S., device charging, a touchscreen tablet for access to city services, maps and directions, and a 911 Emergency Call button. Links also have two 55-inch high-definition digital screens that are used for both public service announcements and advertising. It’s a product that hasn’t been without controversy. Their original version included free web browsing on the device but had to be canceled due to people using it to watch porn in public. But despite this hiccup, the company brings value to the city making the fastest available Wi-Fi accessible for free on streets across the City. The company claims that its advertising platform is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for New York City. The project is also expected to “create 100 to 150 new full-time jobs in manufacturing, technology, and advertising.” It demonstrates how digital screen providers can partner with telcos to create smart city solutions.
Despite the protests against phone booth billboards, the City of Sydney is still courting telcos and screen providers, putting out a tender for connected street furniture including bus
shelters, kiosks, automatic public toilets, benches and rubbish bins, with at least some of this to include digital advertising (the tender was preceded by the expiration of a 20-year contract with JCDecaux). It’s hoped that digital advertising will be used in part to promote real-time events, information and transmit emergency information.
Technology is moving fast, and as DOOH advertising has demonstrated its value to advertisers and screen providers, it grows with no indication it will go away anytime soon, despite lawmaker attempts to curtail some providers. But unless companies ensure products are value-added, we can expect that these contentions will continue. For the DOOH sector to succeed, they need to be leading the conversation and openly engaging with residents and citizens rather than retrospectively reacting to city complaints.