As long as you’re stuck in traffic, can we talk?

Actor, comic and screenwriter Steve Martin wrote the character of God — or at least an omniscient sage — into his 1991 romantic comedy L.A. Story. This is car-centric Los Angeles he’s talking about, so the voice of God wasn’t in the form of a burning bush or an intervening angel, but was the flashing lettering of a freeway sign. Instead of the sign reporting the typical warnings of delays, it gave the lead character personal advice and admonishments. Our star eventually heeds these digital messages, and his own personal heavy traffic magically lifts for a happy Hollywood ending.

Digital BillboardI was reminded of this when I pulled to a stop at a notoriously busy intersection near my home. There, in the muted half-daylight of dusk, was a glowing billboard so rich in color and crisp in detail that it almost seemed to open my door and climb in beside me. I was riveted.

This was a new digital billboard by Lamar Advertising. Both Lamar and competitor Clear Channel Outdoor have posted these LCD boards in my city, along with many others. Over coffee this past Sunday, a friend of mine mentioned the sighting of one of them. They are noteworthy enough that their arrival gets people talking.

It also got me thinking.

LCD billboards grab attention by their picture quality and brightness, and also by the fact that they can rotate ads as frequently as every six seconds. These boards have helped fuel incredible growth in this ad category, called out-of-home advertising. The category is second only to Internet ads in terms of its growth. These boards have also fueled traffic safety concerns, as reported in this recent New York Times article:

“There’s a perception in the advertising industry that you have to up the ante,” said David Zald, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. “We see so much information coming at us that for it to actually leap out and capture our attention, one has to go at a more salient level than you used to.”

But, he added, “there’s a trade-off between the advertiser’s need to grab our attention and the actual safety implications of that attention capture.”

It’s a real concern, especially when the signs are new to a particular roadside. But the danger caused by their novelty will fade. Perhaps their introduction can even be made less jarring by slowing the rotation time — less to gawk at, and thus, more time to think about driving.

What really got me thinking was how a formerly analog medium can work harder when it goes digital. I’d like you to consider for a moment a digital billboard that’s smart enough to anticipate traffic speeds and potential dangers. There are a couple of methods being tested now using things like anonymized cell phone signals to better understand in real time the traffic speeds and conditions of pinpointed stretches of road. Using this sort of information, the signs could respond. When traffic speeds up, rotation could be throttled back.

Now take that traffic-sensitive capability a step farther. Remember, these digital billboards have essentially taken a two-dimensional ad medium and added the third dimension of time. Driven by a computer, anything can be served up on a board, and changed at any time (sometimes the computers fail, with comical results).

What if, when traffic slowed to a crawl, a message was flashed that drivers could respond to immediately, with their cell phones. When you’re bumper-to-bumper, it’s easier to manage a phone conversation and still remain safe. This slowly passing line of drivers would be flashed direct response offers that they have the capability — and free time — to respond to immediately.

Anything that eases their frustration with the wait would drive interest and action. As a public service, and as an added incentive to make the call, the end of the recorded message that consumers would hear would be specific information about the cause of the slow-down — an accident, stalled car or construction — along with verbal instructions on what might be done to ease the slowdown.

Is this smart? Dumb? I’d like to know. What do you think? One thing I’m quite sure of. This idea absolutely cries out to be tested.

4 Replies to “As long as you’re stuck in traffic, can we talk?”

  1. “When you’re bumper-to-bumper, it’s easier to manage a phone conversation and still remain safe”

    Uh, no — it just means the impact won’t be as bad as if it had happened at 50 MPH.

    “This idea absolutely cries out to be tested.”

    Where YOU live. But, God, please — NOT here in the Boston area!

    Having voiced my objections to the idea, I will say this: I’m SURE you could get advertisers to sign up for it, and make some money.

  2. Thanks, Ron.

    I probably should have emphasized that the direct marketing messages would be triggered when traffic is truly crawling — somewhere between funeral procession and parking lot. This is when tempers flare and something to relieve the frustration would be appreciated. At 5 MPH or less, the cell phone would become as safe to use as the beverage holder or radio controls.

    But then again, Boston never has traffic that slow, right? 😉

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