Do you see the signs?

A recent article in the New York Times on Nielsen's new ratings system for outdoor advertising ("Did You See That Sign? Advertisers Will Have Their Answer at Last") was a good reminder of the problems with the commercially-sponsored media.

It was basically a press release for the ad industry. It even cribbed a sentence from the Nielsen Corporation's own publication. (Mediaweek: "Not surprising, exposure to outdoor advertising peaks during morning and evening commutes." The Times: "Not surprisingly, exposure to outdoor ads peaked during the commuter rush.")

The article cheerleads the growth of outdoor advertising and presents the ratings system as a wonderful innovation that will make that growth possible. It even hints at "Minority Report"-like advertising that knows who you are.

But why should I be surprised? Why would an article in an advertisement-sponsored publication ask a representative sample of ordinary people if they think 66 is too many ads to be exposed to in their outdoor day?

Here's what we don't know after reading the article:

  • Why did Nielsen "test" its system on South Africa before deploying it in the United States and Europe?
  • Exactly how "representative" and "ordinary" was the "representative sample of 850 ordinary people"?
  • How do those 3 percent manage to live an outdoor-ad-free life?
  • Will regulators be auditing any outdoor ratings system for accuracy, or do they expect to rely on the "discipline of the marketplace" to keep Nielsen honest?

Perhaps the worst part of it is this was the only – and therefore the best – article on this subject (outside of industry rags) anywhere. So the corporate media fails us once again through bias and omission.

This article is a wake-up call. It should remind us of just how much of our shared public resources we have sold away and at what cost. It should motivate us to take back our public space through graffiti, stenciling, wheatpasting, and celebration.

For those who favor indirect action and government solutions, municipalities should assert their right to regulate outdoor advertising in their local community:

  • Limit the audience reach of any one outdoor ad firm.
  • Establish ad-free zones.
  • Ban ads within 500 feet of a school.
  • Require new billboards to get community board approval as you would a liquor license.
  • Set aside 10 percent of outdoor advertising for public interest use: available for community organizations, artists, PSAs, or publicly-financed candidates.

Pass whatever law or ordinance you want, but please don't trade restrictions on commercial advertisers for further crackdowns on public artists. We want a level playing field between people and corporations. Give graffiti the thumbs up!

I wonder what Lake County, Indiana, thinks. This "Nielsen Claims Outdoor Ratings Breakthrough, Launches System As Industry Eyes Others" from the Media Daily News uses it as an example for the effectiveness of the new data:

By way of example, Hadfield pointed to Lake County, Indiana–a suburb of Chicago to the southwest with a proliferation of billboards (often for high-end consumer items) although the county itself has a low average income. By quantifying frequency, exposure, and average income with its GPS-based system, the Nielsen study proved what advertisers understood intuitively: the billboards are indeed effective, targeting not the inhabitants of Lake County, but wealthy commuters from suburbs further out.

This is how the advertising industry looks at poor people: without seeing them. The billboards sell products to wealthy drivers while blocking the painful sights of post-industrial northwest Indiana. Does Lake County derive any benefit from the billboards in their community? For starters, they should at least be able to use some of the revenue from those spaces as a tax on wealthy commuters.

Of course, outdoor advertising is not a new phenomenon and all of these dynamics are currently in play. Josh MacPhee recently showed a photo of Times Square at a presentation at Bluestockings. Then he showed the same photo with the advertising cut out. It left some faces and scraps of buildings that barely amounted to more than half of the visual space.

But the industry is about to get a lot more sinister and systematic in how it bombards us with ads in public spaces. "Revenue [from outdoor ads] rose 7.9 percent from the period a year ago, more than had been predicted." And it's not just more, it's how:

Another impediment, the difficulty of quickly updating outdoor ads, is being eased by digital technologies that enable signs to be altered instantaneously, he added, "and even targeted to an individual" through the use of devices that could one day be used to recognize, say, the occupants of cars as they drive by a billboard.

Even leaving aside the science-fiction-but-totally-plausible (my EZpass knows who I am) part of that plan, how about the fact that everywhere where we see billboards now we will eventually see a video screen?

We already view so much of our lives through screens. We are surrounded by computer screens, cell phone screens, iPod screens, TV screens. The only time we can even start to get away from them is when we step outside. (The two of those screens that we carry with us are distinctly ad-free spaces, though don't think they're not trying to figure out who to shoot us ads those ways. And of there are ads on the hardware itself. Heck, there's an ad in the middle of that sentence!) Will our experience of the world really be completely-digitized one day?

The plan is to be introduced in initial markets in April 2006; the eventual goal is a system that would operate around the world.

Do you see the signs?

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