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BATTLE OF THE BILLBOARDS

They're big, bold, and not quite beautiful. They can also be a health and environmental hazard, but so far, no one is policing billboards.

by CHARLENE DY


THEY’RE BIG and bold, but Metro Manila’s billboards aren’t exactly beautiful, at least not to everyone. These days one billboard has caught the city’s attention, and few have had nice words for it just yet. One irate motorist even called up a radio station to ask, “Can I do anything about the fact that when you’re going south on Edsa on the Guadalupe Bridge, there’s a big moving screen, and it’s glaring, even distracting, and might cause traffic accidents?” The radio host’s reply: “Well, I think it’s owned by the city of Makati.”

It turns out the electronic billboard in question is only a “joint venture” between the city of Makati and Dream Advertising, which owns it. Dream Advertising, with the help of Korean partners, brought LED (light emitting diode) technology recently to Manila. Since the billboard was put up this year, it has attracted controversy along with ad placements. Motorists have griped about its brightness, billboard suppliers complain that it blocks the advertisements behind it, environmentalists dislike that its foundation was built on a former public park. It also turns out that it went up after Makati’s local government had already issued a memorandum prohibiting any billboard permits to be granted until a new set of ordinances—the Makati City Billboard Masterplan—takes effect.

Makati City Building Inspector Ruel Almazan says the plans for the billboard had been submitted before the memorandum was issued, which was why it was able to clinch a permit. He also says the billboard had been a donation to the city. Engineer Annabelle Maniego, meanwhile, says that there had been a special resolution granted for the LED, adding that the display is “supposed to be for Makati City programs.”

On the same day that she says this, however, among the billboard’s 10- or 15- second spots is a commercial of a golden chicken patty plopping onto a lettuce-topped bun. It’s an ad for KFC, which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Makati City programs. To Dream executives, there is no question that the billboard is commercial, but its association with Makati City has caused a great deal of confusion, both for commuters and, it seems, for city officials.

In any case, the questions surrounding the electronic billboard make it an ideal poster child—or problem child—for the ongoing billboard debate, which is admittedly getting to be more one-sided as each day passes: just about everyone has something bad to say about them. Just about everyone, however, also believes there’s profit to be made (and being made) in those giant signs.

Not that there’s anything bad about commerce per se. People like environmentalist Odette Alcantara, however, say that the resulting mushrooming of billboards is an ethical issue, in part because they mar the natural city skyline. Alcantara is the convener of the Anti-Billboard Coalition or ABC, a group of about 30 motorists, journalists, lawyers, greenies, and other concerned citizens. “I want to make it clear,” she announces. “I’m not against billboards. I’m against billboards in the wrong place. I’m anti-space abuse.” For Alcantara, the billboard boom infringes on public space: the open air, the landscape, things she feels belong to everyone, not just outdoor-media suppliers and advertising agencies. She also says, “They are traffic hazards. They supplant the road signs!” There are also issues regarding aesthetics, offensive content, and structural safety.

These can be difficult to quantify. No studies have been conducted that show whether traffic accidents are caused by billboards, for instance, and offensiveness is subjective. While one viewer may see a billboard of a bare-chested hunk in low-riding denims as lascivious, another might consider it the highlight of her—or his—daily commute.

In 2003, the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP) also commissioned a study that showed only three percent of media viewers in Metro Manila had totally “negative” responses to billboards. Alcantara, however, says numbers are irrelevant. “You don’t win (the debate) with statistics,” she says. “I want it discussed on a moral high ground. This is essentially a moral issue, an abuse of power.”

MONEY MACHINES

Again, for the cynical, all these can really be boiled down to that simple fact of life: money. Or as media consultant Lloyd Tronco puts it, the current billboard explosion has roots in changes in market demographics, improved technology, and competitive prices.

Tronco points out that billboards can connect easily with target markets because “more people are mobile nowadays,” referring to the increasing number of commuters and more time spent outside of the house. There has also been the advent of digital printing, which has allowed billboards to be printed cheaply and quickly on tarpaulin, a resilient, element-friendly material. Lately, billboards have been getting pocket-friendly are as well. According to Carlo Llave, OAAP chairman and president of media supplier Fourth Dimension, they fetched P200 per square-foot in 1989, when they were first introduced in the country. The peso was still something like 26 to the U.S. dollar then. Today, tarpaulin billboards cost only P14 per square foot.

In contrast, “rates are skyrocketing” for other media (radio, TV, print) advertising, says Joel Callao, president of outdoor-media supplier MediaPool. For instance, a 3,000-square-foot billboard on a major route like Edsa would cost about P200,000 per month. A full-color, full-page ad in a major daily newspaper would cost approximately P250,000 on a weekday, and P300,000 on weekends. A 30-second primetime slot on a major local channel, meanwhile, would run about P180,000.

Advertisers aren’t the only ones who profit from billboards’ affordable rates. Obviously so do media suppliers, who are the actual billboard builders and maintainers; numerous landowners also benefit from renting out their property.

So money is really being made, lots of it in fact, although trying to keep track of just how much the outdoor-advertising industry is raking in can be thorny, since there is no system for measuring the budgets and revenues of those connected with it. But Callao suggests that if one assumes that the leading firms, such as United Neon, Carranz, and his own MediaPool, gross some P5 million each per month, the collective yearly revenues for the industry’s top ten earners could reach P600 million a year. There are about 60 other smaller billboard suppliers within the OAAP, many of whom earn approximately P2 million a month, and countless other media suppliers that aren’t affiliated with the association. Add all the numbers, and the total take of the industry could be more than P2 billion a year.

WIN-WIN IN MAKATI?
If only money were everything. In the case of the electronic billboard, where a single ad account can mean revenues of as much as P445,000 a month, the company that constructed and maintains it says it has an everybody-wins arrangement with the city government. “It’s an information drive with the city of Makati,” says Dream Advertising managing director Tim Orbos. “We provide the infrastructure, operation, and expenses. We get the right to advertise and in return, we provide free advertisement for them.” That includes having the city’s website address printed underneath the billboard.

Orbos says Makati’s information materials “are still raw,” but that eventually, 30 percent of the billboard’s content will be set aside for the city’s announcements. The rest would be purely commercial. Already, Dream has snagged an exclusive contract with broadcast big boy GMA-7, which is why the electronic billboard has lately been flashing ads for the network’s Koreanovela “Sassy Girl,” along with those for other shows. Orbos also hastens to add that the commercial spots may include “socially relevant messages” from the likes of the United Nations, which will enjoy discounted rates.

The electronic billboard operates from six a.m. to midnight. Its viewing screen measures 11.5 x 7 meters or 866.5 sq. ft, although its total size is about 12.5 x 8.5 meters or 1,143.5 sq. ft. That makes it the largest full-color LED billboard in the Philippines, although there have been bigger traditional billboards. Recently its brightness has been toned down in response to motorists’ complaints. But neither Dream Advertising nor Makati City looks willing to reduce its size or relocate it, as other billboard suppliers are hoping would happen, since its strategic placement, has obscured the billboards behind it. That prime location, however, allow it to be viewed by “4.5 million eyeballs” a day, and that excludes the eyeballs of MRT commuters.

QUESTIONS ABOUT SAFETY

At least no one is hyperventilating yet about it being possibly unsafe, structurally speaking. In pre-tarpaulin days, when billboards were made out of painted galvanized sheets pieced together on wooden and metal frames, people harped about the tendency of such signs to topple over during an earthquake, or for a particularly nasty typhoon to tear the sheets off their frames and have them flying about, ready to scalp some hapless passerby.

The tarpaulin billboard was supposed to be relatively free of similar worries. But then in mid-September, the edge of one such sign, located somewhere between the MRT Cubao and Kamuning stations, ripped and went unfixed by the media supplier Big Board, in violation of building code regulations. Three days after, strong winds tore the tarpaulin completely free from its frame and then carried it far enough to get snagged on the power cable of an oncoming train. As it dragged on the line, it caught fire, disrupting MRT operations for eight hours, or the equivalent of P4 million in lost revenues. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but there were a lot of frayed nerves among MRT officials and commuters alike.

For legislators, structural safety is the most crucial billboard issue. Most billboard legislation is based on the National Building Code, whose guidelines are vague at best. In drafting Bill 1714 or the Billboard Blight Act, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago tried to address this shortcoming as well as the fact that, at present, local governments rely too heavily on the outdoor-advertising industry to self-regulate.

Defensor-Santiago’s bill offers specifications on distance from roadways, intersections, and traffic lights, number of billboards allowed within a given area, and restrictions on size (such as, “No billboard shall exceed 300 square feet in total surface display area”), with the intent of maintaining safety. The bill also seeks to be applied to all streets, not just national roads, meaning it would supersede the authority of both the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and local governments. “What we’re doing here,” says Camille Sevilla, legislative staff officer for Defensor-Santiago, “is giving national standard that will make it mandatory for local public officials to follow. We’re setting standards for safety, structure.”

Media consultant Tronco says some regulations the senator is asking for are “excessive” and “not feasible,” for example, billboard sizes that are too small, which might result more accidents due to motorists’ inability to read the print. The OAAP’s position paper on the bill is somewhat more diplomatic. While it takes issue with Santiago’s characterization of the billboard industry as a “blight,” it agreed with many of the proposal’s criticisms about current billboard legislation, adding that there was much “confusion as to which government agency” implements which laws.

ILLICIT “MAGIC”
Still, even MediaPool’s Callao says that the industry needs to be more rigorous in self-regulation. “Because of high consumerism in the Philippines,” he says, “we (the ad industry) tend to neglect our social responsibilities as long as it will favor ‘my brand’…We have to regulate ourselves, we have to not respond to competition. Some of our members, even if they know it’s illegal, they will still go for it (erecting billboards).”

This is largely why, say other industry insiders who decline to be identified, a common practice nowadays is to post smaller billboards on street lamps and pedestrian overpasses, even though section 2001 of the National Building Code prohibits outdoor advertisement on “street furniture” on any national roads. The insiders add that personnel and officials of national government agencies and local governments often benefit financially from such legal indiscretions, to the tune of several hundred million pesos a year. (One DPWH architect refers to such arrangements as “hocus-pocus.”)

Back at the Makati City Hall, a rummage through billboard records with Almazan, who is responsible for checking billboards for permits and is authorized to demolish those without proper paperwork, yields these statistics: of 149 billboards, 69 have permits, 72 do not, and eight await verification. It’s clear laws are being ignored; since February 2004, Almazan has demolished 59 billboards.

In the meantime, Dream Advertising is dreaming up more electronic billboards for Metro Manila. Orbos says the benefits of having such billboards include “real-time” value, since the displays can easily be altered to accommodate, say, urgent public announcements. He says his company is planning more joint ventures with other local governments. So far, five have shown interest.

Charlene Dy has worked in Hong Kong, New York, Massachusetts, and most recently in Shanghai, where she was a columnist, restaurant critic, and magazine editor.

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