A Sign of the Times: The Increasing Popularity of Electronic Signs

The writing appears to be on the [electronic] wall for traditional, static signs and billboards. An increasing number of retailers, outdoor advertising companies and business owners are discovering that electronic signs offer a more dynamic and effective way to capture the attention and, in turn, the business, of passing pedestrians and motorists. The ability to program the signs to change images instantly and remotely as well as to incorporate animation, scrolling text, and bold graphics are just some of the attributes that are making electronic signs more appealing than their paper and vinyl competition. Some cities and towns have even begun to view electronic signs as transformative in nature, enlivening and redefining entire areas of a city or town (see the Innovation District in Boston and Times Square in New York City).

In addition to their superior programmability, aesthetic appeal and transformative quality, electronic signs can also improve the bottom line for the businesses that use them. In one example, an owner of a Dairy Queen experienced a 10-15% increase in sales after replacing his letterboard sign with an electronic sign. Perhaps the bright images of ice cream were irresistible for passers-by, or maybe it was the fact that promotions could be customized and flashed on the sign to account for the current weather or time of day. Whatever the case, the owner noted that installing the electronic sign was one of the best things he has ever done for business.

Electronic signs are also being used to benefit the communities in which they are located. They can promote school events and fundraisers, notify city and town residents of important community meetings, and display public safety announcements like AMBER alerts, severe weather reports and other time-sensitive emergency information. Artists are also using electronic signs as a new medium. Successful art programs such as the Art on the Marquee on the electronic sign in front of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the Times Square Moment: An Electronic Gallery on various signs in Times Square are likely to be duplicated in years to come.

Signs and billboards are already heavily regulated by federal, state and local governments, though these regulations often predate rapidly advancing electronic sign technology. So, in light of the potential benefits of electronic signs, as well as the concerns that are often raised about their aesthetics, effect on public safety, and location, federal, state and local governments are taking a fresh look at how to regulate their erection and operation. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, for example, sponsored an amendment to the Boston Zoning Code in 2007 (eventually codified as Article 11) to set conditions for electronic signs in three districts where they were believed to be most appropriate: the Theatre District, the Landsdowne Street Entertainment District around Fenway Park, and the Seaport Convention Center District.

The Massachusetts Office of Outdoor Advertising (OOA) – the state agency charged with regulating signs and billboards that can be seen from certain highways and public ways throughout the state – has similar plans to amend their regulations to account for electronic signs. OOA recently issued proposed revisions to their regulations that include a provision devoted exclusively to electronic signs. In addition to local and state regulations, electronic sign owners must also consider whether their signs are subject to the regulations promulgated by the federal government under the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

As the popularity of electronic signage continues to increase, so too will the regulations that apply specifically to them. Current and prospective electronic sign owners need to keep abreast of this complex area of the law as it continues to evolve – an evolution that appears to be a sign of the times…

Related topics: Retail