By Sylvio Deluca
It is hard to imagine it was 23 years ago that the very first outdoor digital board went up in Canada.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The year was 1999 and a little-known manufacturing company called Tribar, who was specializing in speed radar guns of all things, put up a massive digital board on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Here is the fascinating part—while this board was obviously intended to generate advertiser activity, its primary purpose was to serve as a video screen for sports venue owners across the U.S. and Canada. Sports arena bigwigs were flown into Toronto and taken on a very casual drive along the Gardiner Expressway. This is where this “bright, shiny new technological marvel” would capture their eye and attention. The same as it is doing with audiences today.
What is also remarkable is none of the early pioneers in the outdoor digital category exist today. The likes of Hi There Media, Lightvision, Wild on Media, OBN, Media Alternatives and, of course, Tribar, have all been either acquired or sold their assets to current media owners.
The formative years of outdoor digital faced some challenges. All of the media owners had minimal placements, coverage was limited to Toronto, southwestern Ontario, and Vancouver, and the boards were all different sizes.
There were also different interpretations on what to call this new ad space. Was it video? Was it a TV? Was it outdoor broadcast? A few, such as Hi There Media and Media Alternatives, had some success in coming up with a generic branding name for this new category like Roadside TV or TV Boards. During the early 2000’s this worked, as TV was the king of the advertising world. Not much different than today, where digital is king, and outdoor digital is playing the same ‘name game.’
Like anything new, outdoor digital faced several questions by ad buyers and early scrutiny by government authorities. Buyers wanted to know if they could run a TV spot with audio (maybe they took that TV branding too seriously) or if they could only run on hot weather days, or if they could buy the whole ad loop and run a 60-second long form ad.
However, the biggest question of all: do digital boards distract drivers and cause road accidents? After that first Gardiner Expressway board went up, there was uproar from the media, politicians, and members of anti-out-of-home (OOH) groups. How could local governments allow these massive, bright, full-motion boards on roadways? Surely, these boards would distract drivers and cause countless accidents and deaths. The early outdoor digital pioneers persevered and argued fact over conjecture. One year after the first Gardiner Expressway board went up, an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) study reported a decrease in accidents on the Gardiner, year-over-year, not an increase. There was the proof. These boards did not cause car accidents or deaths. Over the years, this fact has been substantiated with countless studies and articles. However, it has not stopped groups from raising this very same concern in cities and towns putting up their very first digital boards, even today.