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Episode 964: BILLBOARDS

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Episode 964: BILLBOARDS

Episode 964: BILLBOARDS

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There is a long stretch of I-80 between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City, where I grew up, that is almost nothing but highway and desert. I have driven this stretch a million times, and over the holidays, I was driving it again, this time with my niece Caitrin and my nephew Alejandro.

ALEJANDRO: To our right, we see the majestic cargo train in its natural habitat.

DUFFIN: You're, like, the David Attenborough of road trips.

ALEJANDRO: (Laughter) Thank you.

DUFFIN: Miles and miles of mostly shrubs, the occasional cargo train and billboards - one set of billboards in particular.

CAITRIN: Large rooms, great rates - Little America.

DUFFIN: My niece Caitrin there. The billboards that we're seeing are all for the same fancy truck stop/hotel hotel called Little America that is in the absolute middle of this middle of nowhere. For nearly 100 miles, these billboards show up every few minutes.

ALEJANDRO: Yeah. It's 42 miles to Little America.

CAITRIN: Oh, there's another one coming right up after it.

DUFFIN: There in the desert, we are a captive audience to the running storyline of these billboards.

ALEJANDRO: Seventeen marble showers.

DUFFIN: We even start anticipating them.

ALEJANDRO: Drinks, pizza, wings - Little America.

DUFFIN: But there is one thing in particular that shows up on these billboards more than any other, so often that people even write about this billboard in their online reviews of the truck stop.

ALEJANDRO: And this is the one that we've been excited about.

DUFFIN: This one says...

CAITRIN: Seventy-five cent cones, 15 miles - Little America.

DUFFIN: Rising up from the desert floor is a many, many feet tall, delicious-looking soft serve ice cream cone.

ALEJANDRO: Flawless swirling of that cone.

DUFFIN: Billboards like these have a special kind of place in our collective road trip hearts. These days, everyone online goes to the same web sites, but once you get there, we all get different personalized ads. But with a billboard, everyone who drives this road sees the same ad.

CAITRIN: Oh, pulling into Little America.

DUFFIN: And billboards, they work. The market for billboards continues to grow. There are currently about 350,000 of them in America, and more go up every single day. And one study found that billboards, when you pair them with digital ads, are more effective than print ads and - we're sorry to say - than radio ads. So it was probably inevitable that Caitrin, Alejandro and I did exactly as the billboards beckoned us to do.

CAITRIN: And I'll have a grilled cheese and a swirl...

ALEJANDRO: Yeah. I'll get a swirl cone...

CAITRIN: ...Cone as well.

ALEJANDRO: ...As well.



DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Karen Duffin. Today on the show, billboards - old-fashioned ones, fancy new high-tech ones that watch you back. We take you to a billboard in Oregon that went very wrong, and we even put up our own.

How's yours?

ALEJANDRO: It's actually pretty good.

CAITRIN: It is pretty good.

DUFFIN: I'm glad I got the swirl.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3, BYLINE: PLANET MONEY has a newsletter. We keep you up to date with stories about Federal Reserve decisions, the housing market, opium, scooters. It's just the right amount of economics weekly. Go to npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter.

DUFFIN: All right. Can you tell me where we are right now?

FRANK O'BRIEN: So we are in Times Square on 42nd Street and 7th Avenue. They call it the crossroads of the world.

DUFFIN: We are standing at the part of Times Square that you see in the movies - lots of people, big, flashing billboards everywhere. If billboards had a spiritual home, it would probably be Times Square. I am there that day with Frank O'Brien, who is the CEO of a marketing software company called Five Tier, and Frank and I were focused on one set of billboards in particular right above the 42nd Street subway station.

What's on the screen right now?

O'BRIEN: Looks like a jerk chicken ad placement.

DUFFIN: Frank is the Wizard of Oz of these particular billboards. He can almost instantly make some of the most famous billboards in the world say anything he wants, and today he will make the billboards say what we want them to say.

So how do you change this billboard? How does this work?

O'BRIEN: I have the ability to do it directly from my phone.

DUFFIN: Most of the time, these billboards are scheduled in advance and just rotate automatically. But when he wants to, Frank can also pull up an app on his cell phone - it's an app made by his company - and click just a few buttons.

O'BRIEN: So when I hit edit, it will launch as soon as I hit save.


O'BRIEN: And there it is.

DUFFIN: Oh, my God. That's our ad.

Within seconds, the chicken ad is gone, and now projected onto Times Square is the PLANET MONEY logo, along with a tagline that we created at the last minute - PLANET MONEY is a podcast. We should say they put this ad up for free for us so that we could see this in action.

That's magical. It feels like it should be harder than that.

O'BRIEN: Well, don't tell anybody we've got our little secret, but...

DUFFIN: OK. I won't. Nobody listens to this show. Don't worry.

This little magic trick is actually the least of what this billboard can do. This billboard and many other digital billboards all over the world are watching you, or more specifically, your cell phone is watching you. Frank's billboards are set up to know which cell phones are in front of them and when they're there, and then he can sync that up with data he buys from search engines, data aggregators, apps. A recent study from Yale found trackers in more than 75% of the Android apps it looked into. And adding up all of this data, Frank knows a lot about who sees his billboards.

O'BRIEN: We have gamers, auto enthusiasts, young and hip, trendy homemakers...

DUFFIN: He can know people's age, their race, their gender, even their credit scores, also all kinds of things about people's lifestyle preferences.

O'BRIEN: ...Affluent baby boomers, senior sports fans and then online buyers, which...

DUFFIN: Frank can also track your location and see what you've been doing on your phone and online, before, during and after you look at his billboard. Basically, a lot of what Facebook and Google do to you with online ads, these digital billboards do the same kinds of things to you in the real world. Frank did assure me that they stay well within the laws around how this data is collected and used. And he says that the majority of the data that they gather is anonymized - like they only know that a 35- to 44-year-old white female fan of podcasts was in Times Square, not me, Karen Duffin, specifically - unless you have opted in to share your data, which can sometimes just mean that you clicked on some terms and services agreement. If you have opted in like that, at that point, they can track you and target ads to you very individually.

O'BRIEN: The amount of data that can be pulled in is really infinite at this point. With mobile devices; latitude, longitude, altitude - if someone's in an elevator, changing an ad based on the floor that they're on in the elevator.

DUFFIN: Say you were to go up to the third floor of a mall. If you've opted in to share your data, advertisers might know that you're looking for shoes. So when you step off that elevator, the mall billboard might say shoes are 20% off at Macy's. If you buy shoes at Macy's, Macy's knows their billboard worked. If you go to Nordstrom's instead, they probably know that too. And this connected media world is Frank's nirvana.

O'BRIEN: Imagine if you can get back to just moving through this world and having it speak to you about the things that you care about. Then we're not heads down, looking at our phones, answering emails that have no relevance or dealing with spam calls.

DUFFIN: So more targeting, less spam.

O'BRIEN: Correct.

DUFFIN: Frank told me that even as powerful as the billboards currently are, this is only the beginning. He was very excited about this and all the tracking that he can do. I, on the other hand, was growing increasingly uneasy.

O'BRIEN: More and more forms of media are going to come online. More and more data sources are going to come online. We're only going to get closer and closer to living in that, you know, perfectly connected world. So I don't think that there's an end in sight, but it is a very fun time to be alive in this world.

DUFFIN: It does also make me - like, to think, like, oh this is only the beginning, when I already feel like I'm being tracked here, there and everywhere. Like, the idea that it gets - I get more tracked, that makes me anxious not excited.


O'BRIEN: Well, shoot. How can I rephrase that?

DUFFIN: I mean, it doesn't feel like - it actually doesn't matter how I feel about it, right? Like, it's a thing that's going to happen whether or not I like it, right?

O'BRIEN: I don't believe that, you know, perfect is ever going to be possible. And in some cases, imperfect is better because then you lead to more options. Put it this way. Do you want to pay full price for everything?

DUFFIN: Not very badly, no.

O'BRIEN: Do you want to have to spend half of your day searching for the thing that you want?

DUFFIN: Not very badly, but I know what price I'm paying. I know - these leading questions - I'm on to you. Like, I know the ways in which it does make my life easier. But I know that I'm paying a price for it, which is the willingness to allow myself to be monitored most of the - pretty much all day every day.

O'BRIEN: That's great. That's great. That's great to hear. And I think that...

DUFFIN: Wait. Why is that great to hear?

O'BRIEN: Because it shows - and by the way, thank you. This has been an amazing - and I have to give a shoutout. You asked some really great questions. But there's a sliver of a crack in your answer, and it's - and the reason why it's great is because you show an acceptance in some way.

DUFFIN: I mean, it doesn't feel like acceptance to me. It feels like resignation.

O'BRIEN: My God, there you are again with another great...

DUFFIN: You can't flatter me with this.


DUFFIN: Right? Like, acceptance - it's not acceptance. It's like - it is resignation. It's like, I can't change this.

O'BRIEN: And from the caveman days, you know, you can't change if it's going to rain today or if it's going to be sunny tomorrow. I think we've always lived in a world that's, you know, not perfect. And we've evolved to a better place. So OK, I'll agree that, you know - resignation; I concede. But it's the same resignation as, aw, shoot, it's raining outside. You know, I've got to wear a jacket.

DUFFIN: No, because this is in our control. I can't control the rain. Can you control the rain? (Laughter).

He cannot. But if it does rain, Frank's billboards will be happy to tell you about a discount umbrella just around the corner. And if all of this makes you nervous not excited, you might want to take this moment to open your cell phone and adjust your privacy settings. Remember to go app by app, and don't forget location services, too. And you can feel some comfort knowing that laws are currently being debated and, in some cases, passed, that might do things like make terms and conditions easier to understand or require companies to let you opt out more easily. But the reality is you are really only as private as your least-private app. There are so many ways to track you now that billboards will probably find a way.


DUFFIN: After the break, we look into the digital billboard's ancestors - the analog billboard. We figure out how they get put up, and we talk to someone who really, really wanted one taken down.


DUFFIN: After we put up our digital billboard in mere seconds, we wanted to see what it takes to put up an analog one. So we sent one of our correspondents, Amanda Aronczyk, to Fort Lee, N.J., with a crew of billboard installers from Outfront Media.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: The crew that I met - Jose, Cesar, Philip and their supervisor, a guy named John - these guys work together all the time.

Do you guys get along? Do you trust each other?

CESAR: Oh. Well, I trust these guys with my life, unfortunately.

PHILIP: We work together every day, and we go home together every day. And I literally see my family way less than I do these guys.

ARONCZYK: The guys are standing there, and they're wearing what looks like rock-climbing gear.

CESAR: First thing we're doing is we're fitting our harnesses.

ARONCZYK: They pull out the sign. It's, like, this huge sign that's folded up, and it's not that big.

That's it?


ARONCZYK: It looks like two pizza boxes attached to each other.

CESAR: It approximately weighs about 40 to 50 pounds.

ARONCZYK: It's like very heavy pizzas.

CESAR: Yes (laughter). Yes.

ARONCZYK: They set up the ladders, and they go up one at a time - because safety first.

What do you have?

JOHN: It's 10:30 right now.

ARONCZYK: Ten thirty - all right, let's see how long this takes.

When you're doing this, there are, like, all of these hazards, right? It could rain. It could be icy. There could be wind. And the surroundings, like - there's all sorts of obstacles.

OK, thank you. Oh, yeah. There's poo everywhere. That is a hazard.

JOHN: Not just in Manhattan.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

So the first thing that they do is they take down the old sign.

How's it going?

PHILIP: Going good.

ARONCZYK: What are you doing?

They pop the ratchets, and the billboard sort of, like, gets really loose. It kind of wilts. And then they roll it up towards the middle, like a giant scroll.

JOHN: There it is right there.


ARONCZYK: Old billboard hits the ground.

What time is it now?

JOHN: It's about four minutes since you asked last time.

ARONCZYK: They hoist the new one up.

JOHN: Right now they're unfurling the new advertisement, which is Fairleigh Dickinson University.

ARONCZYK: So Fairleigh Dickinson University has clearly picked a very good spot because the billboard faces, like, more than 20 lanes of traffic.

JOHN: Right. Which is ideal - right? - because it's points of interruption. That's our sweet spot, right?

ARONCZYK: Points of interruption, right? Because maybe you're stuck in that traffic, and you're asking yourself, how did I get here? And should I go back to university?

And the - and it's up? Billboard's up?

JOHN: Pretty much. Now all they're doing is going around the sign and typing all of the anchor points. You see the wrinkles are coming out of the sign.

ARONCZYK: And then they put the ratchets back on.

All done?


ARONCZYK: Is that, like, record-breaking time?

CESAR: No. I don't even know how long it took.

ARONCZYK: Took you, like, 14 minutes.

CESAR: Really?

ARONCZYK: Yeah, not much.

CESAR: Oh, yeah?

ARONCZYK: Do you ever see how fast you guys can do it?

CESAR: Not really.

ARONCZYK: So the guys climb down from the billboard. They take down the ladders and stack them on the back of the trucks. They hadn't even bothered to cut the engines.

Ten forty-eight and you guys are done.

JOHN: Yep. Good team. Good team. Good supervisor.


DUFFIN: And for our last story, we go to Oregon and learn what happens when you can't get your billboard taken down. Liza Yeager, you talked to a woman in Oregon about this billboard.

LIZA YEAGER, BYLINE: I did. I met a woman named Barb Campbell, who is on the city council in Bend, Ore. Bend is way out in the desert in the middle of the state - skiing, mountains, tumbleweeds. And it's a nice town. Like, Barb recently heard someone describe it like this.

BARB CAMPBELL: I live in a frickin' (ph) postcard (laughter). I've never heard it described better.

YEAGER: Bend has been growing a lot recently. It's about 100,000 people now. And that's part of why the city of Bend has this problem - traffic. There's a river that cuts the city into an east side and a west side and only a couple of roads that cross over - so huge backups. But Barb says what's worse than the traffic is this bigger divide that runs along those same east-west lines.

CAMPBELL: The median income on the west side of the town is twice, nearly twice, what it is on the east side of town.

YEAGER: The city is split - incomewise, also racially. Bend as a whole is pretty white, but the west side is way whiter. And that divide shows up all over, like on the city council. Everyone's white, including Barb, and mostly west-siders.

CAMPBELL: When I was first elected, I was the only one of the seven who lives on the east side.

YEAGER: Now Barb's one of two east-siders on the council. And when she joined a few years ago, she wanted to finally give the east-siders the representation they deserved. One of her first big missions - fix the traffic, the fact that it is physically difficult to cross from the east side of town to the west.

CAMPBELL: Try and, you know, bridge that divide and move traffic across.


YEAGER: It's time to update the city's transportation plan, and the other council members are on board with making traffic a priority. But they need to know what solutions taxpayers will vote to fund. So the city starts holding lots of community meetings to get input. But at those meetings, the people who show up skew white, retired, west-siders - not fully representative of the city.


YEAGER: And then, last fall, the city decides they're going to make this super short online survey, and to publicize it, they're trying something new - a billboard.

CAMPBELL: Absolutely everybody is going to see it. It's a message just going to the universe, just whoever happens to be going by.


YEAGER: They'll match it on the east side, right on the edge of this big road that gets jammed all the time. East-siders stuck in traffic will basically have to see the billboard - at least that was the plan. One day, Barb goes to a transportation committee meeting, and a staffer shows her the design.

CAMPBELL: Hey, counselor. If you've got a minute, did you see this is what we're doing next?

YEAGER: It's a covered wagon - like, Oregon Trail-style covered wagon. And Barb likes it.

CAMPBELL: You know, covered wagon is absolutely a part of my own family heritage.

YEAGER: Like, she has this picture of her great-grandparents in a covered wagon on their honeymoon moving West - not a super uncommon story in Oregon. And on the billboard design, across the picture of the wagon, there's some text - still having trouble moving east to west - like a joke.

CAMPBELL: Like a joke, absolutely like a joke. I just thought, oh, I get it - east-west migration. East-west is our problem. East-west is what we're trying to bridge. Looks cool. When's it going up?

YEAGER: It goes up two days later, city unification plan in motion. And the next week, Barb settles into her seat at the city council meeting. Near the end of the meeting, during the public comment period, three people step up to the microphone.


UNIDENTIFIED CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: So Joanne and Sareli and Marika are here talking about, I think, an ad campaign.

YEAGER: The ad campaign they're there to talk about - the billboard.


JOANNE MINA: So let me share with you the history of this territory. White settlers began to arrive in large numbers in the early 1840s.

YEAGER: That's Joanne Mina. The recording's a little hard to hear, but what Joanne said was, let me share with you the history of this territory - then, some stats.


MINA: Thousands of white immigrants - in five years' time, white settlers will claim 2.8 million acres of Native American land.

SARELI BELTRAN: I am sure you are aware of the communities that live here. There are communities of color comprised of black, brown and Indigenous people. We exist here in Bend. We live here. We work here. We play here. We worship here.

YEAGER: The point the speakers start making is basically, maybe to everyone who OK'd this billboard, covered wagons seem like a joke, like the Oregon Trail is this fun shared heritage. But white settlement in the West was not a joke. It was massacres, epidemics, displacement.

BELTRAN: Campaigns that produce offense like the one on 9th and Wilson remind communities like mine of how naive, ignorant and oblivious the dominant culture of this city remains.

YEAGER: That's Sareli Beltran, who told me it wasn't like the billboard itself was incredibly painful or something. It was just this huge literal sign of the city government's blind spots. And sitting in her chair, watching people testify, Barb suddenly sees the billboard really, really differently.

CAMPBELL: You know, really, to just see people feeling unrepresented, it was like a blow. It really was. The whole problem we are trying to work on is division in our city (laughter), you know? Oh, my God. And wow, did we step in it.

YEAGER: After the last person testifies about the billboard, the city manager gets up, tells the room, basically, we know we messed up. We're taking it down. No back-and-forth, no excuses - just, we hear you. We'll fix it - except there are the kind of mistakes that you can fix immediately - take down the video, delete the tweet - and then there are billboards.

What happened in the next few days with the billboard?

CAMPBELL: Nothing. That's, you know, kind of the problem. Nothing happened with it for another week.

YEAGER: What do you mean?

CAMPBELL: I mean, there's only one billboard company - certainly in town, maybe in all of central Oregon - and putting up and taking down billboards is actually a job requiring a number of trained people climbing dangerous heights, you know? And so when we asked that it be taken down - only meant that we got in the queue to have it taken down.

YEAGER: The city also had to make a replacement image for the billboard - generic car traffic - which also took time. So the billboard, like a 14-by-48-foot monument to representational failure, stays up for two more weeks.

And during that time, were you driving past it a lot? Like, what was...

CAMPBELL: Oh, yeah, right. Yes, yeah. That's one of the thoroughfares I use.

YEAGER: Do you feel like you have any takeaways about billboards in general?

CAMPBELL: You know, it is the permanence of them. Be sure you like that picture, you know (laughter)? You better make sure there are no typos because you don't get another chance.

YEAGER: The transportation survey, by the way - actually going great.

CAMPBELL: We got a couple thousand people to take that survey.

YEAGER: Wow. Well, I wonder if the good response has something to do with everybody hearing about the billboard.

CAMPBELL: It could be. That's definitely a possibility.

DUFFIN: All right. Be careful what you billboard, people, because if you get it wrong, it may be harder to take down than you hoped.


DUFFIN: Send us your favorite billboard stories. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. Check out our Instagram to see pictures of our very own PLANET MONEY billboard in Times Square. We are on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, all @PlanetMoney. Special thanks to John Sheehan, Evan Lehmann and Catherine Gudis. She's a historian we spoke to who wrote a great book about the history of billboards. This episode was produced by Darian Woods and Liza Yeager. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show. I'm Karen Duffin. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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