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.