Sign Lights Up Marketing

It's not a bird.

Not a plane.

Not even a frog.

It's not little ol' Underdog, either.

But here along Indiana 23, something high in the air has been quickly catching the eyes of passers-by.

At the intersection with Ironwood Drive, more and more motorists are gazing upward at a sight they've never seen in the area before.

A sight that's bright, colorful and active enough to get even adults to use words like "really neat" and "super cool."

"I just noticed it the other day," says Niles resident Chris Walsh, who stands with his groceries in the parking lot of Martin's Super Market as he stares at a new a 14-by-48-foot digital billboard in the distance. "Super cool, yeah, really neat. And it changes. It's like live action."

This new Las Vegas-like digital billboard--which debuted the first week of May--is a cutting-edge addition to Burkhart Advertising Inc.'s presence in northern Indiana's outdoor advertising.

"We've researched this for close to two years," said Burkhart executive vice president Rob Miller.

Considered the latest in outdoor advertising technology, these types of billboards have become more prevalent in the industry and give advertisers greater flexibility and responsiveness than ever before, the company said.

"Our company's been in this community for roughly 42 years, and we felt that it was something that would be a great fit for what we do," Miller said, noting that he's received positive feedback about the new feature.

The company chose Indiana 23 as its first digital billboard location, Miller said, because it's a high-traffic area, one that works well for advertisers and one that caters to motorists' interests.

"You're sitting at this light all the time," said Walsh, the Niles resident, as the billboard ads switched from companies such as Notre Dame Federal Credit Union to Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center. "And as you're sitting there you have nothing to look at but the same old thing."

Now don't think this new technology is taking the Michiana area by storm. Miller said the company doesn't have any immediate plans for another digital billboard in the near future.

But the current one has received quite a bit of interest.

So far, all advertisers -- ranging from credit unions, to medical institutions, to auto dealers -- have been local.

"I think we have someone on a national level looking at it right now," Miller said, noting that six advertisers have used the billboard thus far.

The company didn't say how much the digital billboard costs or how much advertisers pay to use it. But it did say that its main source of advertising still comes through traditional avenues such as bulletins and posters.

The digital billboard simply provides another option for the company, Miller said. And for Burkhart, having that option just makes sense.

Digital billboards are convenient, Burkhart said, because they give advertisers the ability to change billboard copy with the click of a mouse. The sign is updated by computer and can be changed up to six times a minute.

"Our advertisers have immediate opportunities to change their message," said Burkhart's Miller.

But that doesn't come without some restriction. According to state law, animation isn't allowed on the billboard, Miller said.

But a real estate agent, for example, can feature a different house every day, or a restaurant could feature breakfast specials in the morning and dinner specials in the evening.

Digital billboards also are a viable avenue to bring news, Miller said. News organizations often use the signs to highlight the day's headline stories.

Miller said digital billboards also offer great opportunities for community service. Local law enforcement agencies around the country have used the signs to help catch wanted fugitives and to publicize AMBER Alerts. They also can be used to update the community on potentially adverse weather conditions.

Similar signs were used to notify drivers of the tragic I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August.

To Lindsay Saelinger, this plethora of possibilities shows that the digital billboard is logical since it makes good use of a single space.

The University of Notre Dame senior helped stuff groceries into a vehicle with her friend, Annie Mugnolo, as they stared at the billboard that, for Mugnolo, is a common sight back home.

"It's not surprising to see one," said Mugnolo, a Notre Dame senior from San Jose, Calif. "As a marketing major, I think it's a great idea."

And for the Michiana area, it's an opportunity to jump on a bandwagon that is steadily moving its way across the country.

"South Bend's coming up in the world," Saelinger said with a laugh.

Credit: Tribune Staff Writer 
Staff Writer: YaVonda Smalls 
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