Digital billboards - yes or no?

Billboards became a political issue in Auckland at the turn of the century when all of a sudden the inner city seemed to be swamped with unsightly placards polluting the landscape. The introduction of the Auckland City Council Billboards Bylaw 2007 temporarily cleaned the area up, but the issue has cropped up again with the Auckland Unitary Plan providing for billboards that are “well designed and in the right place”.  With digital technology becoming increasingly popular there are new issues to consider.

Two years ago Christchurch City Council asked Boffa Miskell to help develop a guidance document on electronic advertising signs. Landscape planner Yvonne Pfluger was tasked with the project. She says the biggest considerations for councils when developing plan provisions or guidelines are location, the height, size and scale of the billboard and the brightness of lighting. The visual integration of billboards, including their mounting and integration with the architecture of the building are also important aspects. 

 Boffa Miskell was asked to develop a guidance document on electronic billboards.

Boffa Miskell was asked to develop a guidance document on electronic billboards.

Pfluger says the change of images in particular are what draws the viewer’s eye to the LED billboards.  For most existing billboards consent conditions define that images must be displayed for at least eight seconds and that one image must dissolve into the next over a second  to avoid a flicker effect. Animations are generally not allowed, as distraction in relation to driver safety is one of the concerns. 

ETC Media director, Mike McCaleb has 13 of the 20-odd digital billboards in Christchurch. To him the LED lights “are a beautiful thing, particularly in winter.” He estimates there are more than 500 advertising boards in the city and surrounding areas. So while digital is growing, he says, it’s still a small portion of the market. He believes the resource consent process that companies like his must go through when they want to use a new site protects the city from visual pollution. He doesn’t favour a nationwide standard because our cities have their own unique character. “Most wise cities have a signage ordinance that controls both on and off premise signage. And there are so many different forms of digital advertising.

“I think New Zealand should have a standard though on the open highway that prevents them (billboards) because I think there are natural landscapes that should be protected.”

 ETC Media Dierector Mike McCaleb believes electronic billboards can be beautiful.

ETC Media Dierector Mike McCaleb believes electronic billboards can be beautiful.

McCaleb says his first digital billboard in Christchurch occupied a vacant piece of land on a prominent corner in Fendalton. “As part of our resource consent application I had a landscape architect design a garden which surrounds our billboard. 

“And with other billboards we’ve included both architectural and garden features to help to integrate billboards. I’m trying to put up a sign that appears attractive. And presenting it well is part of that. Importantly ugly billboards don’t command the same type of revenue as the beautiful billboards.”

But he concedes beautifying the advertising message in that way isn’t the norm.

“The content of the billboard defines to a large extent whether you may find it attractive or otherwise,” McCaleb says. “The great thing about digital billboards is their ability to be relevant to the time of day, time of year, instead of something that’s static, that’s unchanging. It’s a great medium to run things of immediate importance.

 The rear of a free standing digital billboard in Christchurch.

The rear of a free standing digital billboard in Christchurch.

Digital billboards require large supporting structures and places to hide all of the power cables. Because they’re targeted at people in vehicles their visual effects on nearby residents, pedestrians and other users of the public realm are considerations councils need to address through clear policies to ensure the amenity and urban character can be maintained says Pfluger. “I think it needs guidance around which urban areas they’re suitable for, and to avoid the cumulative effect of proliferation of the billboards and visual clutter,” she says. 

McCaleb agrees there should be rules and feels the Resource Consent process is working in Christchurch. “I also appreciate architecture, nature,” he says. “Resource consent is a set of rules that defines where it is and where it isn’t appropriate place for a billboard. To a large extent I think those work.”

 Mike McCaleb says the content of the billboard generally determines how people feel about them. 

Mike McCaleb says the content of the billboard generally determines how people feel about them.