“Chronicle of the Billboard Wars”

By Diego Ruiz

Yesterday, neighborhood filmmaker Ossian Or’s documentary “Chronicle of the Billboard Wars” made its national premiere in the John B. Davis auditorium. The film documents a national grassroots movement against the “visual blight” caused by flashing digital billboards. The Mac Weekly sat down with Or at Coffee News Cafe to discuss why billboards have sparked a national movement. Could you describe how digital billboards cause “visual blight”? All across the country we’ve met people who have these flashing into their houses. And I would pose that question to many of the executives of these companies — do you have these flashing in your bedroom windows? Do you have them in your neighborhood, even? If these digital billboards are such a good idea, why aren’t there any in Edina or Eden Prairie? They don’t want them in those neighborhoods … Nikki Laliberte’s [a character in the documentary from East St. Paul] sense of outrage was profound, because it wasn’t even her city that was doing it; it was the city across the freeway. She didn’t even have to be notified. It was a total surprise and shock. Talk about an invasion! Why is this an uphill battle against billboard companies? It was an uphill battle, but frankly I think the tide has turned. Within this past year there have been notable defeats. But still billboard companies often win these fights. Why does that happen? They do because they rely upon stealth. They sneak in; they’re incredibly sneaky. And in places that have been outed, where we know they’re coming, or we see them, we’ve beaten them decisively in many places. For example, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, one digital billboard was put up in the area, in the outskirts. There was a county planning commission event that 200 people showed up to. Eighty-five percent of them were protesting the idea of allowing more digital billboards. That was one in a fairly scenic area. People were just livid about it in certain areas. What are the characteristics of communities that successfully fight against digital billboards? That’s difficult to answer because we’ve seen a number of places where the sense of cohesion didn’t seem to be there, and all of a sudden this became a rallying point. I contend that it takes a couple of really motivated people in each place. I think that a lot of people are irritated with billboards generally, but they don’t see them anymore. Virtually every city in America put in place regulations and signed ordinances in the 1980s and ’90s that would give a sunset to billboards, that they would eventually go away, they would belong to the twentieth century. All of a sudden they’re doing this trade-down, and some people are falling for it — they’ll trade 10 old billboards for one new digital that’s going to be there for 50 years, and more obtrusive than all the rest. What’s the motivation for cities to include billboards if so many of their citizens are against them? It’s hard because there are threats of lawsuit, and they want to avoid litigation. Plus, in a lot of cases the politicians are being offered free advertising and they’re given lots of perks, not to mention straight-out campaign contributions. So it’s very difficult for the cities to do it proactively. What has happened in most places is that enough citizens have held them accountable. What was your experience in communicating with companies like Clear Channel in the process of making this documentary? I’ve had some dealings with them, and I’ve found them to be pretty single-minded just in terms of being advocates for what it is they do … They’ll say, “these billboards are good for business,” and we’ll say, you can’t make a blanket statement like that, because there’s all kinds of examples of when they’re bad for business. And if they’re so good for business, why aren’t they in upscale neighborhoods? Why is your film premiering at Macalester? This whole thing began when the billboard was taken down from the top of Breadsmith. That was the first video that I put online. I live just a couple blocks away from here, so I knew that that billboard was coming down. I came over with the camera to document it, and that’s how that whole thing was started. What makes digital billboards so much worse than conventional billboards? [Billboard companies] have said that [digital billboards] are not more dangerous. The industry would love nothing more than to convert all billboards to digital so they don’t need people in trucks running around to change the vinyl. So then all of a sudden you’ve got multiple — one changing here, one changing there, so you’re barraged with continually changing messages back and forth. It becomes very dangerous. In terms of distracting drivers? Yes, and it hasn’t been included in the distracted drivers agenda because of the power and the clout of the companies that are doing this. So what is clearly a distraction to the same degree as looking at a cell phone — if you look at your smart phone for two seconds, it’s no different than looking at a billboard for two seconds. And they say they’re not really distracting. If they’re not really distracting, then why in the hell are they putting them up? And so they’d like to have it both ways. They’d like to go, “Well, they aren’t really distracting,” but they tell their advertisers, “These are the most distracting things out there; you need to be on digital billboards because they distract like crazy!”