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Not wanting to be left out in the cold, the outdoor industry is joining the rest of the media by going high tech.

While outdoor spending on alcohol and tobacco advertising has dropped 78% since 1979, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America conservatively estimates that revenues rose 7% to $1.7 billion in 1994, with much of the credit going to new technology.

"The industry has moved light years ahead in the last year," said Diane Cimine, chief marketing officer at the OAAA. "The medium used to be viewed as backwards, archaic."

Among the newest developments, Transportation Displays Inc. is expected to announce by March 1 the option of adding digital message signboards to existing boards. Later this year, Gannett Outdoor Group plans to bring moving laser images to boards though no other details were available at press time.

While these offerings will cost extra, most of outdoor's new technology is added value as the industry modernizes. The advancements make media buying easier, bringing greater accountability and creating shorter campaign turnaround times. They include:

Geo-demographic mapping combines census data, Simmons Market Research Bureau information and other research with market maps displaying where targeted consumers live and their tastes. Additional programs determine inventory and match appropriate outdoor board sites.

Video drive-bys on CD-ROM save "riding the boards" time by showing buyers what sites look like and their general environment. Related software imposes images of ads on particular sites and shows how they will look at different distances.

Bar coding marks posters with Universal Product Code-like symbols, giving precise data on when ads go up and come down.

Computerized painting allows high resolution and shorter lead times for breaking campaigns and now comprises 25% to 50% of all outdoor boards. Fashion advertisers like Calvin Klein have been impressed with the improved reproduction and the category is now one of outdoor's biggest growth areas.

Satellite-controlled outdoor boards "talk back," reporting burnt out light bulbs, flagging paper and allows quick adjustments for fog and seasonal time changes.

While availability is still spotty as companies update themselves, those that have experienced the offerings are enthusiastic.

"It's an awesome fact that I can remain in my office and ride the boards," said Dan Ziski, New York region manager for Busch Media Group. "Especially in a market so congested like New York; I can now do in 30 minutes what took a whole day."

A new system from Twenty-First Century Marketing, Bethlehem, Pa., seamlessly combines mapping, video drive-bys and sample image trials.

While few could cite the new technology as a sole reason for landing new clients, all agreed it enhances the medium's ability to sell itself and keep advertisers happy.

"The industry renders more sales by being customer-service oriented with better and faster info," said Jack Hanrahan, senior VP-out-of-home media, Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

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