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Billboards: Digital vs. Print
By: Tom Roarty
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Drive on enough highways throughout the United States, and you will undoubtedly come across some great outdoor advertising. The art of outdoor advertising has been around since around 1840, and although the basic model of the billboard is the same, the deployment method has changed a lot.
It wasn’t all that long ago that new technology caught up to the old formula and the birth of the digital billboard was conceived, bringing a whole new dimension and conflict to the advertising vessel. With digital, there is no more waiting for weather, printers, or installers. All you have to do is save your JPEG, TIF, or movie file, upload it to a server, and you are live, rain or shine. As a designer, I love the instant gratification of the digital media, but I also understand that by updating the process, you are eliminating the need for a lot of people who were used to make the traditional method possible, and even with that savings in manpower, the difference in cost is not usually passed down to the client.
From a visibility standpoint, paper doesn’t come close to an illuminated display. Which brings up one of the biggest problems with it. When I was working for a company that had done a lot of outdoor digital and traditional advertising, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the distraction factor, which was monitored by the state. Admittedly, if you create a digital billboard using “hot” colors (white, yellow, light blue, etc.) not only do they appear very bright to night travelers, but they also have a tendency to overheat during the day, both of which could be considered a danger to motorists.
Even though I personally like the digital format, I have found that a print billboard is sometimes more effective than a potentially animated advertisement. With print, you have one panel to create a clear, distinct message without the intrusion of technological distractions. As a designer, you are more focused on getting the message out faster, which is key when marketing to people passing your creation at 50 miles per hour or more. Another point for print is that its message is dedicated: one billboard, one ad. With digital, there are usually multiple advertisements sharing the same space, which could lead to your ad never being seen by a large amount of those who may pass it by.
For all the pros and cons that accompany this media, there is a solution, which is to strategically place the right advertising in the right location. Now that digital billboards are becoming more common, more and more people are better understanding the importance of their placement. Roadways are great for traditional print billboards and always have been. Digital is effective in those places where there is a lot of foot traffic. New York started installing them in entrances leading down to subways, but why stop there? For all of the advertising below ground, isn’t that an equally good place to introduce digital ads, now understanding some of their strengths?
Like all advertising, electronic billboards will be tweaked until a proven formula is found. For the most part, all digital media is still very new, but as we use it more, it will grow stronger, and its effectiveness will grow. As far as print goes, as long as people continue to buy it, creatives will keep creating for it. In the end, there’s always enough room for any media that sells.

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