Photo: The Drum article by John McCarthy

“Outdoor or out-of-home (OOH) ads are modernizing, ditching static paper and paste formats for ever-changing illuminating digital screens. Media owners are locked in an upgrade race, but with climate crisis anxiety heating up, is the sector’s savior tech compatible with the sustainability needs of society?

Earlier this month, Greenpeace tweeted a vandalized Clear Channel six-panel, which read: “This ad uses the same electricity as three average households. Global heating machine.” It was posted as a video of parkouring teens turning off overnight street signage did the rounds on social, while Europe hit all-time high temperatures. The Drum investigates…

Is the writing on the wall?

Are OOH units ‘global heating machines’? The answer is complicated. The device you’re reading this article on is technically a global heating machine. Everything uses energy – the question is whether the sector’s use of energy is irresponsible.

One 2010 study claimed a 48-sheet digital billboard (6.096m x 3.048m) consumes about 30 times more energy than the average American household in a year.

2019 research from Adblock Bristol showed that a much smaller but double-sided digital freestanding unit from Clear Channel used more electricity than four homes each year. Meanwhile, a large JC Decaux billboard was found to consume the equivalent of 36 homes ‘if it was running for a full year at maximum output.’ These are thirsty machines.

This year, a freedom of information request from The Guardian found that 86 digital out-of-home (DOOH) boards in Manchester city center each use an average of 11,501kWh of electricity every year. That’s roughly 345 households’ worth. But these units deliver £2.4m a year in rent, plus 2.8% of the revenue from each ad. That’s well in excess of £6,956 per ‘household.’

In cities all over Europe, tens of thousands of these units consume several homes’ worth of energy each year… so is it worth it?

Outdoor industry responds

Media owners have been cleaning up their act as they transition from analog to digital real estate. Their involvement in urban architecture is dependent on the public’s permission, therefore it must demonstrate utility and be receptive to their needs.

Tim Lumb, insight and effectiveness director at Outsmart, the trade body representing UK OOH, issues a defense saying media owners have been seriously reducing their carbon impact, prioritizing energy-efficient suppliers and supply chains, buying renewable energy and offsetting carbon. Anything from adopting non-fossil fuel fleets to ditching plastic coffee cups is on the table.

Richard Kirk, chief strategy officer at media agency Zenith, believes OOH is bearing the brunt of a wider anti-ad sentiment because it is ‘highly visible and very physically tangible,’but adds that the sector has a ‘much better sustainability story to tell’ than other channels.

Agencies are now calculating their carbon footprint across the entire media ecosystem in a bid to offset their impacts. They know consumer sentiment is turning hostile toward the biggest polluters, but right now the tools lack sophistication.

Research from Cavai estimates that the average online ad impression emits the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere as driving an electric car between 0.4 to 9.65m, watching a 40 inch $K OLED TV between 1.5 to 35 seconds, or having a LED light bulb on between 30 and 700 seconds.

The energy consumption of a single impression is between 0.14Wh and 1.93Wh. Meanwhile, Ovo estimates the average annual UK household electricity consumption sits at 3,760,000Wh per year, the equivalent of a mere 26,857,142 ad impressions. This sounds like a lot, but a study from Good-Loop estimates that programmatic tech handles 2,000 times more bids than the New York Stock Exchange on any given day – 8tn transactions all in the name of targeted advertising. That’s a lot of online impressions. Furthermore, advertising likely added an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK in 2019. So the OOH sector might be the tiniest tip of the melting iceberg of advertising’s damaging impact.

So with the wider context laid out, as Lumb points out, OOH doesn’t ‘just’ deliver advertising but serves as a public and community message board too. On billboards, advertisers formed coherent pandemic advice before the government, encouraged the public to clap for the NHS and – increasingly – issue weather warnings during periods of high heat. You’ll also see them try to rejuvenate the high street, with local businesses often embracing the tech now it’s more accessible and affordable than it was in static formats.

When considering the energy expenditure of OOH, it’s worth remembering that it, like TV, is a broadcast media – it serves one ad to many people at once (unlike ads on your mobile or computer, which are targeted and rendered on each individual device at a greater energy cost). Clear Channel reckons the UK hosts 30,000 DOOH panels – a small share of some 100m video screens in the UK…

One study [not named] claims that a 14×48m digital billboard with LED bulbs uses only twice as much power as a static billboard, and adds that LED lights use about 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs (although you need way more of them). Other studies have digital using as much as 13 times more energy.

Comparatively, a digital site will always use more energy than a static one – but if correctly implemented, media owners could meet advertiser demand with fewer sites.”

— John McCarthy, The Drum

More detail on the positioning of the industry is in the full article which can be read here