Paris Hilton's vacant? Billboard industry seeks new ways to fill empty space

When advertisers slash spending, ad-dependent newspaper companies cut costs by reducing the number of pages they print. Billboard owners aren't as lucky. They're stuck with the unsold ad space. During past recessions, that space would stand empty, aside from bleak black type declaring "Available." But, in this recession, billboard companies are getting much more creative.

New Zealand-based billboard company, Media5, is getting plenty of press for this billboard in Auckland, which features a photo of Paris Hilton with the word "Vacant" emblazoned below her mug. Funny -- unless you're either Hilton or one of the country's hurting billboard companies. In fact, Hilton thinks its so unfunny that she is now threatening legal action.
Despite the outward frivolity of such advertisements, the outdoor marketing industry is in a worrisome state. Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings (CCO), one of the largest billboard companies in the U.S., said on Monday that its third-quarter sales plunged 19%, pushing it to a loss. The company is currently undergoing its fourth debt restructuring. CBS Corp. (CBS) said last week that its outdoor division posted a sales decline of 23%.

"The first thing that normally goes is advertising" during a recession, says Claude Dicks, a salesman for Allison Outdoor Advertising, which sells billboard space in North Carolina and Georgia.

Allison lowered its rates as the recession took hold, but it was still stuck with unsold space. Then, about seven months ago, it decided to start using upbeat messages -- such as "Smile, you're beautiful" and "Commit a random act of kindness" -- to avoid empty canvasses, Dicks says. Other unsold billboards have been plastered with public service announcements from the New York-based non-profit Advertising Council, including these two billboards, which caught the attention of a North Carolina fan.

Donated space for outdoor PSAs is running at about the same rate as 18 months ago, but it appears to be staying up longer, says Peggy Conlon, the president and CEO of Ad Council. One change, though, is that billboard companies are asking for PSAs tailored to the recession, including ads aimed at combatting hunger and preventing foreclosures.

"We have had our foreclosure work out there for three years, but people are acutely aware of the need for that service right now," she says. In California, where the housing crisis is raging, the foreclosure billboards are among the top messages used by outdoor ad companies.

Anything is better than white space. "My thought is that folks would rather see some kind of message other than giant, empty billboards," Dicks says.

Billboard companies are also using the space for a little self-promotion. Dicks' face was used on roughly one dozen of his company's empty billboards when he joined Allison earlier this year. "They said, "Welcome, Claude Dicks, your new man in Murphy [North Carolina.]."

"That got a lot of response from people saying, 'I know I've seen you somewhere'," he says. Fortunately, he's been able to sell most of those billboards since then.

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