On LA's Sunset Strip, A New Golden Age Of Billboards

Apr 21, 2018
Originally published on April 30, 2018 7:24 am

Billboards are having a moment.

Traditional advertising has been falling for years. Companies just aren't spending as much on newspaper, radio and television ads. And last year was not much better, according to an industry report.

But there is one traditional advertising form that is showing signs of life: billboards and other parts of the segment known as out-of-home advertising.

In one sign of how hot billboards are, Netflix, the television and tech giant, reportedly is offering to buy a billboard company for $300 million.

Hollywood and tech companies love the old-fashioned billboard. Look no further than the Sunset Strip, a mile of Sunset Boulevard between LA and Beverly Hills in the city of West Hollywood.

Famous for decades for its nightlife, it's one of Los Angeles' most popular attractions. Places like the Whiskey a Go Go, the Rainbow Bar and Grill, and the Viper Room are part of what give the Strip its allure.

The nightlife and the proximity to the homes of the stars help make the Strip the most expensive area for billboards outside of New York's Times Square, says Brian Alexander with Billboard Connection, a billboard advertising agency.

There are no billboards in nearby Beverly Hills where many of the stars live, but West Hollywood takes pride in its billboards. As we walk down the Strip, Alexander notes that the advertisers there are mainly tech, entertainment and fashion brands.

A full-size billboard on the Sunset Strip costs $35,000 to $100,000 and beyond per month, he says. The Strip is commonly advertisers' first choice to locate their billboards, but when Alexander tells them the price, he often has to readjust their expectations. He says he tells them, "We got something for you maybe on Fairfax or 3rd Street, Beverly, all fine streets by the way, with plenty of traffic. But yes, it's not the Sunset Strip."

Sure, billboards seem old-fashioned in the digital age, but that's their selling point, Alexander says. "Billboards cannot be turned off, deleted, thrown out, have [their] channel changed and so they're in your face," he says.

Advertisers like billboards because they provide context for an ad based on location, says Nancy Fletcher, president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. "If you are a movie, you could target a studio. If you're a star, you can actually put it on the way, if you know which way they drive home," she says.

Tech is one of the top sectors advertising on billboards. Nationally, Apple is the No. 2 billboard advertiser, after McDonald's. And Netflix has at least eight billboards on the Strip.

One of the most famous and expensive billboards in Los Angeles is located near the Chateau Marmont Hotel. Alexander says it easily costs over $60,000 per month and Apple has a long-term contract. It was once a billboard for the Marlboro Man.

"It has a great view as you approach it. It's obviously larger than life, you cannot ignore that," Alexander says. As tourists and celebrities travel the Strip, "there's nothing you can do except see that huge billboard as you go around this turn," he says.

When he started, Alexander says, his friends chided him for being in such an old-fashioned business. Now, he says, tech is making a new golden age of the billboard.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Traditional advertising may be declining, but one old-fashioned technique is actually going strong - billboards. Hollywood and tech companies love them so much that according to reports, Netflix is trying to buy a billboard company for $300 million. And to find out why, NPR's Sonari Glinton went to the Sunset Strip here in Los Angeles. It's home to some of the most coveted billboard real estate in the world.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm standing at the beginning of the Sunset Strip. Now, the strip is famous for its decades and decades of nightlife. And at the heart is a mile of Sunset Boulevard between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills in the city of West Hollywood. Now, the rules have always been just a little different on this mile, which is why world-famous nightclubs were established here, like...

BRIAN ALEXANDER: The Comedy Store, the Whisky a Go Go, the Rainbow Room (ph), the Viper Room.

GLINTON: So who are you?

ALEXANDER: Who am I? I'm Brian Alexander. I'm with Billboard Connection Outdoor Advertising.

GLINTON: Alexander says the strip is the most expensive area for billboards outside of Times Square. One reason - well, there are limits to billboards in Los Angeles, and there aren't any in nearby Beverly Hills. Now, as we walk down the strip, Alexander points out that the advertisers here are mainly tech, entertainment and fashion brands. Now, he sells billboard ads all over LA, but people always want the strip, and they're willing to pay top dollar by the month.

ALEXANDER: To have a good, full-sized billboard on the Sunset Strip will cost approximately 35,000, 40,000 to start and can go up to 70-, 80-, 90,000 or more. We start to rearrange our expectations.

GLINTON: Yeah, so if NPR is like, let's put a billboard on Sunset Strip, you're like, oh, no, my brother, you might be able to afford Culver Boulevard.

ALEXANDER: Right. We got something for you maybe on Fairfax or Beverly - all fine streets, by the way, with plenty of traffic. But yes, not the Sunset Strip.

GLINTON: Brian Alexander says billboards are literally in your face, which is why advertisers love them.

ALEXANDER: And the reason why is because billboards cannot be turned off, deleted, thrown out. And so they're in your face. You cannot ignore it. You cannot turn it off. There's something physical that's impactful, that other media can't enjoy.

NANCY FLETCHER: You're standing in the perfect place because advertisers really like the creative impact of billboards.

GLINTON: Nancy Fletcher is the president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

FLETCHER: But they also like what - the contextual relevance. So politically, you could target a member of Congress. If you're a star, you can actually put it on the way to their - you know, if you know which way they drive home. And so the ability to target locationwise is a big part of the medium's power.

GLINTON: It's the tech companies that are really using the medium's power. The No. 2 billboard advertiser is Apple, after McDonald's. And Netflix, the streaming-video giant, has about a dozen billboards here on the strip. Now, I notice this billboard that I'm standing under, the Apple billboard, which Brian Alexander estimates is worth more than 60 grand a month - it used to be the Marlboro Man. And in many ways, this billboard here is as iconic as any of the clubs on the strip.

ALEXANDER: It has a great view as you approach it. It's obviously larger-than-life. You cannot ignore that. There's nothing you can do except see that huge billboard as you go around this turn.

GLINTON: Now, when he started selling billboard ads, Alexander says his friends made fun of him for being in such an old-fashioned business. Now, he says, it's the golden age of the billboard, brought to you by tech. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, West Hollywood.

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