Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

It's a Sign!
distributed 2/13/09 - ©2009

Advertising is everywhere. It is on websites and in emails, TV and radio and newspapers, in the mailbox and on the front door. "Product placement" sneaks up on us in movies and TV shows. There are even ads stuck to the floors of grocery stores.

Most of us try to ignore the incessant sales pitches. We tune them out to preserve our mental health. On occasion, though, it is important to take a fresh look and notice what is happening around us.

Especially if you live in an urban area, you'll probably see a remarkable change in one of the old stand-bys of advertising: the billboard. Those road-side monsters are going electronic. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America is excited to say that "Digital advertising is one of the most dynamic and fastest growing areas in the outdoor advertising industry." There are about 800 of the digital billboards in the US now, and the number is expected to hit 9,000 within 10 years.

The new digital displays work like giant TV screens -- or, in a catchy phrase, like "Powerpoint on a Pole". Rather than the weather-beaten image on a standard billboard which remains unchanged for months at a time, a digital billboard flashes a different image every few seconds. The bright, rapidly-changing graphics stand out, night and day. (Scenic America has several videos showing digital billboards in action.)

What is not immediately obvious is the amount of electricity that it takes to run those digital signs. Highly-efficient LEDs illuminate the messages, but those tiny diodes still consume vast amounts of power when they cover large areas, and are cranked up bright enough to be vivid in broad daylight.

How much juice does a billboard use? The U.S. Green Building Council in Texas found that the carbon footprint of one full-sized (1448 foot) digital billboard was equivalent to that of 13 average houses. As a conservationist, I find that sort of electrical use appalling. The enthusiastic prediction of 10 times as many of these billboard in a decade -- a decade when we should be taking dramatic steps to cut energy use -- is perverse.

Why are these energy hogs sprouting in and around cities? Several of the articles that I've seen about these billboards, both from the industry perspective and from critics, explain the enticing economics of the new technology. A digital billboard is very expensive to install -- perhaps costing $500,000 -- and to run. But because a billboard company can sell space to multiple advertisers, rotating four or five ads per minute, the revenue and profit margin from such a sign can be vastly greater than from a traditional sign.

It can be a good deal for the advertiser, too. Placing an ad within the rotating loop is much cheaper than the long-term lease for a whole billboard. Rather than an unchanging image, the content of the ad can be customized for the time of day. A restaurant can hype their lunch special during the morning hours, and use a pitch for elegant service closer to dinner time. A business can use different ads for weekdays and weekends.

All the people with a direct financial stake think digital billboards are great. The billboard company gets increased profits. The advertisers get better pricing and greater flexibility.

It is the broader community which gets stuck with all the externalities, all of the hidden costs, and very few benefits. The community sees increased electrical demand and more pollution from power plants, including substantial global warming impacts. The community gets visual clutter, night time displays that light up whole neighborhoods, and the incessant distraction of rapidly changing messages.

As this new type of billboard becomes more common, protests are starting to mount. In Los Angeles, especially, there's lots of controversy about the placement of these signs. The issues being debated in Southern California will influence how digital advertising is installed elsewhere.

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When climate change activists talk about reducing our carbon footprint, I often hear about the things that we can do as individuals -- change light bulbs, drive less, nudge the thermostat to the edge of your comfort zone. We hear about increasing energy efficiency in churches and other businesses. There are institutional and political issues like more stringent fuel economy standards for cars, and restrictions on new power plants.

What I don't hear very often is a critique of the social trends where "progress" leads to dramatically increased energy use. Giant TV screens and ever-more powerful computers are proliferating, but their use is anti-conservation. Digital billboards may be the most glaring example of an inappropriate technology that, by design, increases the use of electricity. If we're going to make real progress in reducing energy use, these destructive trends need to be named, discussed, and reversed.

In addition to a change-your-lightbulbs campaign, church groups can lead their communities in conversation about the environmental impacts of billboards, with a focus on light pollution and energy use. Many people will be astounded to realize the invisible electrical use of these signs. It can be an interesting entry point into a discussion about environmental factors and social trends, and might lead your congregation to spearhead changes in local zoning.

From a religious perspective, the careful use of resources is at the heart of the principle of stewardship. As people of faith, we affirm that the treasures of this world are not ours to waste or use frivolously. No matter how profitable digital billboards may be, they must also be evaluated on the basis of good stewardship and justice for the community, now and into the future.

Open your eyes this week, and see if digital advertising is starting to appear in your community. Take action now to reduce or refuse this trend.

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Some helpful sources:

  • A two-year old article in the New York Times provides a good summary of the issue, although without ever mentioning the factor of excessive energy use. In the 25 months since the article was written, the number of digital billboards nationwide has about doubled. A link on the side of the article provides state-by-state information about the restrictions on digital billboards which can inform your local discussion.
  • A page from Scenic Colorado discusses a range of the legal and economic issues related to billboards. Thanks to our Colorado Springs friend, Larry Barrett, for his leadership on this issue in his community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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