Facts about the Billboard Industry

How big is the outdoor advertising industry in the U.S. in terms of revenue?

According to the Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA), outdoor advertising companies earned $8.6 billion in revenue in 2019. Although that figure dipped by about 30% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, industry officials anticipate a rebound in 2021 and beyond.

How many billboards are there in the U.S.?

The Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA) reports that there were 343,606 billboard sign faces in the U.S. in 2020. Scenic America’s 2021 research has found 439,711 billboard sign faces throughout the U.S., and as many as 20 percent of these may be nonpermitted, nonconforming, or illegally modified. This estimate is derived from data reported by state outdoor advertising associations and other official sources.

How many digital billboards are there in the U.S.?

The OAAA estimates that there were 10,100 digital billboards in the U.S. in 2020. While this figure seems relatively low compared to the total number of billboards, the statistic is misleading because it does not account for the fact that each billboard may display up to 10 messages, often on more than one side, accounting for thousands more advertising impressions than a traditional static billboard. More recent information from state agencies indicates that there are at least 7,000 estimated digital billboards reported in state records, with even more digital billboards being permitted by county and municipal governments.

In which states and communities are billboards prohibited?

Four states prohibit all billboards, with restrictions implemented as noted here: Hawaii (1927), Alaska (upon entering statehood in 1959), Vermont (1968), and Maine (1977).

Oregon and Rhode Island have capped the number of billboard permits that can be issued, so while signs may be moved or replaced, there is no net increase in the number of signs allowed in those states.

Scenic America estimates that there are approximately 700 communities across the country that prohibit the construction of new billboards. Larger cities that ban new billboards include:

  • San Diego, CA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Orlando, FL
  • Sun Valley, ID
  • Evanston, IL
  • Naperville, IL
  • Amherst, MA
  • Asheville, NC
  • Reno, NV (limited bank of new construction permits expiring in 2027)
  • Knoxville, TN
  • Houston, TX
  • Dallas, TX
  • Fort Worth, TX
  • Richmond, VA
  • Virginia Beach, VA
  • Bellingham, WA
  • Olympia, WA
  • Jackson, WY

What are the largest outdoor advertising companies by number of billboard faces?

Company 

Number of billboard faces 

1. Lamar Advertising 

161,300 

2. Outfront Media 

42,125 

3. Clear Channel Outdoor 

40,382 

4. Adams Outdoor 

10,000 

5. Reagan Outdoor 

9,300 

Source: Billboard Insider: The Top 20 US Bulletin/Poster Companies Ranked by Faces | Billboard Insider™ 

What companies are the top users of billboard advertising (2020)?

  • McDonald’s
  • Apple
  • Geico
  • Amazon
  • HBO
  • Coca-Cola
  • Allstate
  • Anheuser-Busch
  • Comcast
  • American Express
  • Cracker Barrell
  • Google
  • Netflix
  • Dunkin Donuts
  • Miller Coors
  • Verizon
  • Facebook
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Disney
  • Universal Pictures

Who regulates billboards?

Billboards that are located within 660 feet of federal-aid roads are regulated under the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965. Federal-aid roads include all national highways and many other public roads that are not classified as local roads or rural minor collectors.

Passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the HBA:
• Requires states to maintain “effective control” of outdoor advertising along federal highways or else be subject to a loss of 10 percent of their federal-aid highway fund.
• Prohibits billboards in areas with non-commercial activity.
• Prohibits new billboards that don’t conform to certain size, spacing and lighting requirements.

When the HBA was passed, each state was required to enter into a mandatory agreement with the federal government that set forth sign controls in commercial and industrial areas based on customary usage within the individual state at the time the agreement was signed.

What about billboards that are not located along federal-aid roads?

Billboards that are not located along federal aid roads are regulated by local sign ordinances that vary by community. Local cities, towns, or counties may impose stricter regulations on outdoor advertising than the state or federal government does. Additionally, nonconforming signs on state or local roads not covered by the Highway Beautification Act are often governed by local ordinances that do not allow them to be substantially altered or expanded either.

How are new billboards being constructed if it’s forbidden by the HBA? Why do I see a lot of billboards on some roads and not on others?

The HBA governs federal-aid roads, whereas local ordinances address sign control on local roads. These ordinances vary widely by community.

What is amortization in the context of billboards?

Amortization is a policy tool for removing billboards, in which public authorities can require that a sign be removed, but that it can remain in place for a set length of time. A sign can continue to generate revenue during the amortization period, and the policy requires only that a sign be removed; the state does not take possession of it. The sign or materials used in the construction can be reused in other locations where signs are legally permitted. Therefore, amortization does not constitute a compensable taking under the Fifth Amendment.

Amortization was a recognized legal method of providing just compensation in 1965 when Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act (HBA), and amortization continues to be a federally constitutional method of compensation today.

However, in 1978, Congress passed an amendment to the HBA to revoke the rights of cities and states to amortize billboards along federal highways. Therefore, governmental agencies must pay cash compensation to outdoor advertising companies to remove even nonconforming billboards.

What happens when a billboard is removed?

Billboard owners pay little to no property taxes and no road user fees such as fuel taxes and tolls, yet they derive 100% of their value from their proximity to publicly funded roads.

When the government needs the land under a billboard for a public purpose such as a road improvement project, billboard owners often demand compensation for lost future revenues, often for up to seven years or more into the future. For example, the replacement of the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul, Minnesota required the removal of one digital billboard and four static billboards owned by Clear Channel Outdoor. In September 2013 the Minnesota Department of Transportation settled with Clear Channel, paying them $4.3 million for the digital billboard and $3 million for the static billboards, all from public funds.

Why do advertising companies convert their static billboards to digital billboards?

Despite higher installation costs, the profitability of digital boards provides a powerful incentive for companies to put up as many as possible. With their changing message displays, digital boards allow companies to sell ad space to ten times as many clients as static ones. They also allow advertisers to change content several times a day or week, and from remote locations, at relatively little cost.

What happens when a city agrees to trade traditional static billboards for digital billboards?

To help convince local authorities to allow digital billboards, sign companies often propose to remove a certain number of static signs in exchange for each new digital sign. This approach is a tacit acknowledgment by the billboard industry that billboards are undesirable, and that reducing their overall numbers is a way to bargain with communities. If communities accept a compromise like this, they should only allow the largest possible ratio. For example, Kansas City, MO, considered a proposal for an equivalent seven to one conversion agreement. Gulfport, MS, had an agreement for a six to one conversion ratio, and Tampa, FL, had a ten to one ratio.

Are digital billboards dangerous?

A growing body of research demonstrates that digital billboards pose a threat to traffic safety. Digital billboards create dangerous and unavoidable driver distractions, by design and for the purpose of drawing driver attention away from the road and toward the advertisements. Images rotate every 6-10 seconds, and drivers will naturally look up at the sign to see what comes up next.

Specific research examples cited in Scenic America’s compendium of safety research include:

  • A 2015 government-funded study on the impact of digital billboards along high-speed roadways in Alabama and Florida found crash rates 25 percent to 29 percent higher near the signs than at control sites down the road. Many of the crashes near digital displays involved rear-end collisions or sideswipes typical of driver distraction.
  • A 2012 study by the Swedish government found that digital billboards took drivers’ eyes off the road for significant periods of time. As a result, Swedish officials ordered the removal of digital signs. Other studies from Denmark, Canada and Australia show similar concerns about digital billboards’ impact on traffic safety.

An analysis of the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, released in 2006, showed that taking one’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds for any reason not directly related to driving (such as checking the rearview mirror) “significantly increased individual near-crash/crash risk.”

Does banning billboards or digital billboards violate the First Amendment right to free speech?

At this time, no. Most local jurisdictions have the right to enact strict bans on digital signs in spite of state rules that may permit them. In almost all states, localities may ban billboards outright or may restrict the size and types of billboards that are allowed. The only thing they cannot restrict is the content and what appears on the billboard. The U.S. Supreme Court revisits this issue in City of Austin v. Reagan, in which a decision is expected in the first half of 2022.

How do billboards impact property values?

A 2011 University of Pennsylvania study, Beyond Aesthetics, showed that homes located within 500 feet of a billboard are worth $31,000 less at time of sale than those located further away. In addition, every billboard in a census tract correlated with a nearly $1,000 depreciation in home value compared to the city average. The presence of billboards reduces local property tax bases. Attempts by town and county governments to recoup these costs though permit fees and taxes on billboards never succeed in offsetting the lost value.

What are the environmental impacts of billboards?

Billboards negatively impact the environment in several ways:

  • Tree cutting: 32 states allow billboard companies to cut and remove publicly owned trees in order to make their signs more visible. Removal of these highway buffer trees contributes to erosion and negatively impacts air quality. Surrounding neighborhoods and property owners suffer from increased noise and light pollution.
  • Energy use: digital billboards waste energy. An October 2019 billboard industry blog stated that one 10 x 30-foot board in Texas used 20,440 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of power per year. By comparison, the average Los Angeles household uses 6,000 kwh per year.
  • Light pollution: Digital billboards project light outwards and can illuminate the area near them for quite some distance. People who live near digital billboards complain that they light up their living rooms and bedrooms with constantly changing colored lights. Dark skies groups and astronomers complain that they flood the night sky with ambient light.
  • Impacts on wildlife: Digital billboards and brightly lit static billboards contribute to the growing problem of light pollution, which disrupts the circadian rhythms and related behavior of local wildlife populations. People are not immune to this kind of pollution, and excessive lighting can negatively impact human health as well as ecosystems.

Do billboard companies help the community through PSAs, Amber Alerts, etc.?

Billboard companies often claim that their platforms help the community by providing free advertising for causes. Such contributions are generally limited to unsold advertising space and are offered to curry favor with local authorities. Donated ad space and Amber Alerts cannot compensate for the threat to public safety or the aesthetic harm done by digital signs. Alternatives exist for emergency communication along highways. Existing government-operated digital highway signs, which have been in place for many years, as well as television and radio, already provide a system for emergency communication.

How do people feel about billboards?

The American public consistently demonstrates their dislike of billboards when they are asked about them.

  • By a 10 to 1 margin, Floridians prefer reducing the number of billboards over further increases.
  • 64% of the citizens in New Hampshire oppose to billboard advertising on highways, with 53% of total respondents strongly opposing billboards.
  • 62% of Rhode Islanders state that billboards make state roads less attractive, as opposed to 31% who simply felt it made no difference.
  • 96% of Houstonians believe it important to make major improvements in beautification of the city, and
  •  81% of residents of Houston, TX, favor their existing ordinance banning new billboard construction.69% of Missourians believe that fewer billboards would make their state more attractive to tourists, while just 26% disagreed.

Details about these polls and other surveys are available here.

May my city prohibit new billboards?

Most likely, yes. Decades of case law has affirmed the rights of communities to prohibit the construction of billboards based on safety and aesthetic concerns. Approximately 700 communities restrict the construction of new billboards. Contact Scenic America for assistance.

What actions can you take to fight billboards in your community?

Scenic America and its chapters and affiliates stand ready to assist citizen activists who are concerned with billboards, digital signs, and other types of scenic blight in their communities. We offer assistance including research, public comments and testimonies, advocacy campaigns and public outreach support, at no cost to you. Contact us to see how we can assist.

For More Information

The Nature of the Outdoor Advertising Business (PDF)
The purpose of this paper is to provide background to help the reader understand how the industry operates.  Professor Charles F. Floyd articulates the differences between off and on premise signs, and he also delves in the reasoning for the outdoor advertising industry in providing “public service” billboards.

Learn more: