August 10, 2013 – The Future of Advertising in Seattle

Bright Lights, Big City

Bright lights, big city, gone to my baby’s head – Jimmy Reed

Traditionally outdoor advertising has been static billboards. But nearly five thousand digital billboards are now found nationwide, and everything from street furniture to wrapped buses to towed signs (behind truck or bike), coupled with the emergence of digital displays are becoming the norm. “Out of home” advertising is a multi-billion dollar business. And Seattle is one of the battlegrounds in the fight for control over our public spaces and views.

Unfortunately for us, Seattle is exposed because our municipal code regulating signage is antiquated. And City Council, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and the City Attorney have been unable (or unwilling) to take on the challenge of addressing the numerous flaws and loopholes that our code (or lack thereof) presents. This has created the opportunity for advertising companies to, for example, place massive signs directly onto the sides of buildings, and thereby skirt the cap of 502 billboards in the City that was set decades ago.

Seattle's largest w#15AEE59
iPad “billboard” on the west side of the Macy’s garage -approx 6000-7500 sq ft

The outdoor advertising industry works behind the scenes to avoid public scrutiny. Last year an effort by Clear Channel to allow digital billboards in King County was defeated at the last moment when citizens became aware of legislation and flooded County Council with hundreds of calls and emails. Currently, Clear Channel has been working the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), City Council and the Mayor attempting to allow new forms of advertising, including digital displays. They are also lobbying down in Olympia with legislation in the Senate and House to negate Washington’s Scenic Vistas Act that will open our state highways and scenic byways to proliferation of the now banned digital billboards.

In Seattle, Clear Channel controls 90 percent of the ‘Off Premises’ advertising. The one sign inspector at DPD is ineffective, and the department in general has little grasp of the issues and newer technologies employed. Clear Channel continues to intimidate the City through decades of legal challenges. On-going “innovation” is getting more advertising up before the City can respond.

And while the advertisers rake in the dollars and skirt the rules, Seattle gets back little to nothing of what our streets earn for them.

Through a recent Request for Information (RFI), the McGinn administration learned from two of the world’s largest outdoor advertising corporations (Clear Channel and JCDecaux) that their imagined “Downtown Program” needs to 1) include digital billboards, and 2) expand into the neighborhoods, with their suggested ad placement on streetscape elements such as: trash/recycling cans, benches, bike racks, news racks, information and advertising kiosks, bus shelters, automatic public toilets, community bulletin boards, water fountains, vending machines, etc.

And just recently City Council authorized the exploration of allowing more advertising onto our streets as a way to generate money into city coffers. The McGinn administration will most likely now issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to determine whether or not to sell Seattle’s streets to off-premise advertising (billboards) in exchange for street furnishings or to make streetscape improvements downtown. Selling off the eyeballs is not a unique thing. But this action is being taken in Seattle with virtually no public knowledge, process or debate.

Seattle, the Emerald City, is recognized for our unique and long-held protective ordinances around off-premise advertising. A proliferation of such advertising in the past led to our current cap on billboards. We’re known as a leader in sustainable and green practices, for an appreciation of our physical environment, and not succumbing to the decades of legal challenges brought on by the outdoor advertising industry, their lobbyists, and litigators.

Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, and Alaska already ban billboards. in 2007, the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, banned all billboards and advertising within the city. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Times Square and in Los Angeles ads that consume the whole sides of the building.

It’s unfortunate that during our current election cycle these issues were not raised. Let’s hope that as we move toward final election in November that the citizens of Seattle are made a part of the process of determining whether we will allow these significant changes to Seattle’s downtown and neighborhood visual environments – a change that will likely live beyond our lifetimes.

It’s time to discuss if we want this to occur and at what cost, or whether this will simply happen by default because of another backroom deal.


To help us better understand what is happening in Seattle and around the country is Paula Rees, principal of Foreseer, an environmental design firm based in Seattle. She is a recognized expert in the application of urban communications, and her clients have included PCC, Pike Place Market, Port of Seattle, Sound Transit, UW, Seattle Center, King County, Seattle, and Tacoma. Rees is one of the founders of Keep Washington Beautiful that is focused on increasing awareness to reduce visual clutter and blight, advocating for safe communities, and protecting the quality of our region’s neighborhoods and scenic environments.

by Bill Bradburd, Aug 6, 2013


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