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A billboard facing the vehicles entering Toronto from the west can be seen beside the Gardiner Expressway. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
A billboard facing the vehicles entering Toronto from the west can be seen beside the Gardiner Expressway. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Road Sage

Billboards: weapons of mass distraction Add to ...

The world is worried about distracted driving. Laws exist to stop you texting behind the wheel. Police are on the lookout for motorists surfing the web while they drive. Talking on the phone, drinking a coffee, texting and typing, all divert the eyes from the road and all must be stopped. Experts and everymen agree: driving distractions are a menace.

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Unless, of course, you’re a big company looking to sell something. Then all you have to do is throw down some cash and get yourself a billboard (preferably digital) alongside a busy highway. Then it’s “distract away.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with this practice. I like billboards. They show me large bright, cheerful images of things I covet.

On my drive to work, I see billboards featuring women in bikinis on beaches, beer, Cuba, casinos, Rihanna, the Dominican Republic, commercial-free rock, cheap airline tickets, clips from television shows and even inspiring slogans (“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”). There are also billboards that suggest I purchase items I am not as excited about: car insurance, tax lawyers, medieval entertainment.

Sometimes it seems as if the billboards are located in an order that plants thoughts, creates need, and then provides a product as solution.

For instance:

Billboard No. 1 – Woman on beach in bikini.

Billboard No. 2 - Woman in bikini (not sure where she is).

Billboard No. 3 – Ice cold refreshing beer.

Billboard No. 4 – Cialis.

If my iPhone sent me pictures of women in bikinis and then erectile dysfunction ads and I looked at them while driving then a cop could give me a ticket and fine me. But it’s okay for a billboard to have me look at this stuff, without my permission, using what I assume is public air space, because people with tons of money gave some of that money to other people with tons of money so that they can show people like me pictures that get me to spend money so they can continue to make tons of money. It’s simple.

Some people don’t share my love for billboards (especially digital ones).

Digital billboards hold your attention for much longer periods of time. In Denver, the municipal government has banned digital billboards. They are also banned in Maine, Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont. Last year, city politicians in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont Royal borough declared a ban on billboards. They are being sued by advertisers who maintain the ban is a violation of free speech.

Billboard critics should all just crack a beer, go gambling, buy some underwear, pop a Cialis and relax. There’s nothing to worry about.

A 2007 study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (paid for by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education) found no evidence of a connection between digital billboards and traffic accidents. Yet a recent review of studies by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials found that digital billboards “attract drivers’ eyes away from the road for extended, demonstrably unsafe periods of time.” Frankly, I’m surprised that they’re surprised. Billboards are the only form of driving distraction that are designed and intended to distract. If they didn’t catch our attention then they wouldn’t be there.

So, if we admit they are a tad diverting, maybe there is an upside.

It may be that these signs are doing a service. By stimulating us they may stop us from getting lazy while driving. Maybe the adrenal rush one gets from seeing an advertisement for car insurance, Cuba or Victoria’s Secret Christmas special makes us more alert and attentive drivers.

In other words, large colourful billboards showing beautiful people doing exotic and erotic things serve a purpose. They wake us up and get us to buy products, thus stimulating the economy and ending the recession. Do you want us to be in a recession? Then stop complaining and start listening to the billboards.

I do, however, have a problem with street-level bus shelter advertisements.

They are distracting and they block your eye sight. It’s from behind these signs that jaywalking pedestrians can appear. Dangerous. Also, they aren’t bigger than life and therefore don’t have the same effect on my consciousness that enormous flashing digital billboards do.

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t look at roadside billboards as calculated distractions designed to spur base consumerist impulses. Instead, see the thousands of billboards that line our streets and highways as a dreamy constellation of delights designed to titillate your weary mind as you commute.

After all, without them you might forget the reason you spend hours in traffic to work at a job you hate – so you can earn money to buy stuff you don’t need.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

Follow on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

 
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