Jacksonville Billboard

The Jacksonville City Council voted Monday to put a moratorium on billboards within the city limits. 

Of all the things the Jacksonville City Council could chew on this spring, it’s doubtful that the regulation of digital billboards would rank as its most pressing need.

That said, residents should pay close attention to what rules that city writes for digital billboards, which present a tasty dilemma: Do they chase the money or protect their city’s aesthetics?

On Monday, the council approved a 180-day moratorium on the erection of billboards that should provide enough time for lawmakers and staff to decide Jacksonville’s path. We suspect the result will be a highly restrictive ordinance that will protect the city’s visuals and safe driving on Alabama 21 as it bisects downtown.

For decades, federal and various states’ regulations have determined what type of electronic billboards were legal on American highways and interstates. Today, laws vary greatly state to state and city to city, the biggest difference being the amount of time billboards are allowed to change between ads.

Billboard companies and advertising representatives are adamant that digital billboards do not exacerbate distracted driving. Studies funded by pro-advertising firms back up these claims, showing no significant increase in accidents near digital billboards.

Similarly, studies from anti-digital billboards groups show an uptick in wrecks. And that says nothing about the growing number of U.S. communities that believe digital billboards are grotesque and mimic the appearance of the Las Vegas Strip or Times Square in Manhattan, a forest of bright, gaudy lights that overwhelm your senses. That may scream hyperbole, but it’s a point worth considering.

Here is perhaps the vital issue: digital billboards are a huge growth area in an advertising industry that’s seen steep declines in most media. By pricing ad slots at different rates — more for rush hour, less for the midnight-to-sunrise hours — billboard owners can maximize their profits at obscene levels, particularly in large markets.

Billion-dollar investors have jumped into the digital market, as well, lured by these steep profits. Technology exists today for smartphones and digital billboards to connect so that ads are targeted to passers-by, according to Forbes.com. “The digital outdoor advertising industry,” Forbes wrote last year, “is already undergoing what could be one of the most profound transformations in its history, and it seems this will be a positive change.”

Those concerns may be far above what Jacksonville considers with its ordinance. While other cities have already decided on digital billboards, it will be fascinating to see what restrictions Jacksonville lawmakers choose. It’s a safe bet that the city’s roads won’t look like Vegas or Manhattan anytime soon.