Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dancing in the Dark: Farewell to Electronic Billboard Blight

Although the last post ended with a hope for the return of light, this one gives thanks for lights out, in the form of the obnoxious electronic billboards that until last week, have turned much of L.A. into Times Square. Not that I don't love Times Square, but that level of constant visual stimulation is a lot of fun when viewed by pedestrians in Manhattan. It's much less enjoyable while trapped in gridlock traffic on the highways and byways of the Westside.

Constant craving: The giant hot dog at the 7-11
at Overland and Palms
One morning last week, I noticed that one of numerous billboards that constantly flash at me on my morning commute to UCLA, was dark. I assumed it was out of order. On the drive home, however, I noticed that the electronic billboards at Santa Monica and Westwood were also dark. A court order had dictated that more than 60 of the billboards operated by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor be shut off. By mid-week, about 100 of these signs were dark.

For nearly six years, a coalition of residents whose neighborhoods were invaded by the glare of these billboards - which often shone directly into houses and apartments - fought to get the signage removed. Apparently, the L.A. City Council had made semi-secret deals with the billboard companies that allowed the signage to be installed in 2007. They were placed just about everywhere in the city, even near residential areas.

The argument is made - by the billboard companies, of course - that the signs are a vital asset to public safety, with their ability to broadcast important messages. While that may be true to an extent, I have only seen them used for this purpose less than a half dozen times. Besides, the public is so attuned to personal media devices that there is little chance that anyone will miss the memo about a sudden zombie attack upon Greater Los Angeles.

These billboards signs were a blight and a safety hazard. When I first saw them, I was alarmed by the speed at which the images would change. They made the streets look like a flashing computer screen full of pop-up ads and distracting graphics that would divert attention from whatever you were on the computer for in the first place. In addition, for the hapless residents of the Westside and other areas where the signs were thoughtlessly erected, the billboards were often placed at the perfect height and  angle to keep their homes brilliantly and unnaturally lit.

I think if advertisers want to get public attention, they need to consider giving us a truly authentic sense of what they are selling. Who doesn't love the giant hot dog that is perched about the parking lot at the 7-11 on Overland and Palms? It doesn't flash, but it does the job: I always want a hot dog after catching a glimpse of it.The gigantic sinker that is Randy's Donuts is another L.A. icon that does the job without offending anyone. There used to be a whole genre of restaurants shaped like the items on their menus: more giant hot dogs (remember Tail O' the Pup?), oversized coffee pots, fruit, and milk bottles. They tell you where you are and what you'll get, without any superfluous information on their Twitter or Facebook. You're not supposed to text while driving anyway.

If you do a search on the saga of the electronic billboards, you will be greeted with endless posts on the disregard of the L.A.City Council for the impact that such obtrusive signage would have on heavily trafficked and densely populated neighborhoods. Greed was the main motivator here, both on the part of the council members who were in on the deal and from the advertisers and billboard companies.

Although CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel have vowed to get the billboards back on line, there have also been murmurs that the offending installations will be removed completely. That would be a wonderful thing. But for now, I am enjoying the the reduction in visual clutter. Most of all, I am enjoying the return of the velvety night sky, the silhouettes of our iconic palm trees, and despite all the lights we do have on in the city, more space in which to see the stars.

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