A new breed of eye-catching digital screens is becoming part of the urban landscape in cities like San Francisco, flashing from atop Ubers and Lyfts — at least those not sidelined by the coronavirus crisis — while broadcasting ads for companies and products and delivering weather forecasts and PSAs.
The screens offer intriguing promises: for advertisers, a way to target messages by location and time, and for drivers, a simple way to snag a few extra bucks at a time at a time when the fight over California's Assembly Bill 5 and now the spread of COVID-19 has intensified complaints about low pay and a lack of benefits.
An investor in the LED billboards once predicted that in the near future, movies will "feel dated" by the absence of the screens in the background of scenes — and he may have been right. Until recently, the fledgling ride-services ad industry was dominated by a few players piggybacking on Uber and Lyft's success — companies like Firefly, which recruits drivers to get its car-top billboards installed and apparently pays them a few hundred dollars a month to drive around with them. But as the ride-hailing giants themselves venture into the space, that may be about to change.
"We feel like we have the ability, if we want, to scale this not just nationally but internationally," said Brett Baker, who's leading Uber's new rooftop advertising program, on stage at a Digiday conference in Palm Springs last month. "When we think about that opportunity, I know it gets me very excited. I know it gets our leadership very excited."
The innovation, though, may hit some snags that parallel larger tensions in the ride-on-demand business as it grows and dominates the traffic flow in cities. Some drivers are reluctant to bolt the billboards to the roofs of their personal cars. Some city leaders and residents see the ads as rolling urban blight, not only unpleasant but distracting and even dangerous to pedestrians and drivers. And there are questions in some places over who regulates the ads — and whether they are even legal.
"We hear from a lot of people who are just oversaturated with advertising in their lives generally and are trying to limit the amount of advertising they're seeing," said Max Ashburn, communications director for Scenic America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes visual pollution. "I think people want to limit the amount of advertising they're exposed to, and one of the things about outdoor advertising is you can't turn it off, and you can't ignore it."
Safer cities first
Full-motion car-top advertising is part of a push to bring the data-driven precision of online ad targeting to city streets, beaming messages that can be micro-targeted down to the city block and time of day to wireless-connected screens. A car-top screen could broadcast in different languages depending on the neighborhood or advertise lunch specials during lunchtime.
The technology has reached a critical point. In the fall, Lyft
acquired startup Halo Cars, whose car-top signs look similar to Firefly's. Lyft confirmed the acquisition but declined to comment further. Meanwhile, Uber recently launched a rooftop ad program in partnership with Adomni, which sells advertising on more than 160,000 wireless-connected screens across the U.S., positioned in places ranging from bus shelters to gyms. Over 100 companies, including Clear Channel and Lamar Advertising, own screens in Adomni's network, said CEO Jonathan Gudai, and Firefly has a nonexclusive partnership.
A mobile location data company, PlaceIQ, feeds Adomni identifiers for cell phones that were in the area of its stationary signs, allowing advertisers to re-target people with ads on their phones, Gudai said. Adomni's advertisers don't yet have the option of re-targeting people exposed to moving car-top billboards, he said, but that capability will be rolled out later this year.
The business unit called Uber OOH Powered By Adomni has already deployed the devices in Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, a second wave of expansion into new cities, which Gudai declined to identify, was slated for later this year. That timeline is now uncertain, though, due to the health crisis, which has hit both the advertising and ride-hailing industries hard. "The plan is definitely to resume when it's safe to do so," Gudai said on Wednesday.
He said Uber handles driver outreach, and Adomni sales and marketing. A third company,
Cargo, with which Uber has a long-running partnership, has abandoned its old business of selling snacks in cars; it will now handle the logistics of installing and maintaining the signs, Gudai said.
The first few cities were chosen for their friendly regulatory climate, Gudai told Protocol. "Part of why Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix were selected is that [Uber] had a high confidence in things going smoothly," he said. Uber is currently providing advertising space to the Ad Council, a nonprofit group that runs PSAs — similar to what Firefly has done in the past. Such gifts can build goodwill from potentially influential community leaders.
'We've seen this movie before'
Those jumping into the space are well aware that car-top ads have opponents in some cities, including Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, whose effort to crack down on Firefly could offer lessons for both the industry and its critics. As a state assemblyman in the early 2010s, Blumenfield authored a law that helped empower cities to prohibit so-called mobile billboards, ads mounted on trailers that flooded Los Angeles, outraging many residents.
"We've seen this movie before," he said in an interview, "but this is a much more advanced version of that movie, so to speak."
Last year, when Blumenfield mounted an effort to ban digital signs like those operated by Firefly, he gained the support of neighborhood groups that cited concerns over aesthetics and safety. "I've never ever had a constituent come up to me and tell me, 'We don't have enough advertising in our community,'" Blumenfield said.
The council, however, never voted on his proposal, which Firefly fought.The company spent nearly $500,000 on lobbying activities in Los Angeles in the first half of 2019, city records show, and a chorus of supporters materialized to sing the company's praises. At council meetings, drivers testified that Firefly provided extra income that helped them pay their bills. Nonprofits that had gotten free ad space penned letters opposing the ban. At one point, drivers picketed City Hall, wearing giant signs bearing Blumenfield's face and slogans like "Bob Blumenfield Wants Us in Jail!"
Firefly representatives networked with leaders of the Los Angeles taxi industry to enlist their support. "They talked to management for all of the [taxi] companies," said Leon Slomovic, president of the Taxi Workers Association. Henry Royt, secretary of the Independent Taxi Owners Association in Los Angeles, said Firefly paid taxi drivers to attend meetings.
Gregory Stock, Firefly's director of public affairs and partnerships, said Firefly did not pay taxi drivers to attend meetings. He declined to comment on whether it was involved in organizing driver protests.
Some council members were receptive to Firefly's argument that it benefited struggling drivers — and after the backlash against Blumenfield's proposed ban, the debate turned to whether taxi drivers, who are subject to different regulations than Uber drivers in most cities, should be allowed to get screens, too. Councilwoman Nury Martinez put forth a proposal that would lay the groundwork for a pilot program to put the technology on cabs. The council hasn't voted on it yet.
Blumenfield maintains the car-top ads are illegal under existing city law, as does the city attorney, and he wants drivers to understand that. "I'm not really moved by that argument that we ought to let [drivers] do something illegal because the company they work for doesn't have the decency to pay them a fair wage," he said.
Another petri dish for the technology has been New York, where rooftop ads on ride-hailing vehicles are forbidden. That would change under a bill introduced in September by City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, which is supported by Firefly, as well as the Independent Drivers Guild, a labor group that reportedly gets funding from Uber. City records show Firefly hired a lobbying firm to lobby Rodriguez and other city officials on rooftop advertising rules in August.
In April 2019, drivers protested a proposed ban on car-top screens outside Los Angeles City Hall.Photo: Courtesy of Jake Flynn
In an interview, Rodriguez said his goal is to help drivers. But while some drivers support the technology, others say the inconvenience of the billboards outweighs the extra income. The device draws from the car battery and can't go through a car wash, for example.
"I would never put a giant monstrosity on top of my vehicle," Devan McDonald, the administrator of a drivers' group on Facebook, said in a message to Protocol. "I would have that giant eyesore on top of my car when I want to take a day off and go out for a night with my wife." He added, though, that "$200+ a week" would get his attention.
Regulatory gray area
For now, Uber will pay drivers $300 to get a screen installed and then $100 per week if they hit hourly driving minimums, Gudai said. It's unclear how much Firefly pays drivers. In February 2019, then-company lobbyist Pete Gould told Los Angeles council members that "with drivers earning $300 per month, we offer as much as a 20% boost to their hourly income." Asked by Protocol how much it pays, Firefly declined to comment. (The company also did not respond to a request for comment on whether drivers are being compensated during the coronavirus pandemic.)
Arrangements vary. One driver who had a screen in downtown San Francisco earlier this year said he wasn't getting paid at all, because the car was rented from Getaround. A company representative wrote in an email that "Getaround is working on a small pilot with Firefly to better understand how rooftop advertising can benefit our users (both Uber drivers and car owners)."
Shadowing the debate is the reality that in many places, the devices fall into a regulatory gray area. In California, the state Department of Transportation oversees highway billboards, but not car-top ones. The California Public Utilities Commission regulates Uber and Lyft, but not these ads.
"It's fallen through a crack in the otherwise existing billboard control regulations," said Berkeley-based highway safety consultant Jerry Wachtel, who did pioneering safety research on digital billboards in the 1980s.
Wachtel, who has tested digital billboards, said he has seen Firefly's signs on the streets and is certain they're brighter than California law allows highway billboards to be. "If they were regulated the same way the billboards are regulated, they would be considered not in compliance," he said.
There's one state regulation that clearly applies to car-top screens: a vehicle code limiting how big and bright things on a vehicle can be. But while brightness testing is a simple procedure, neither Firefly nor its critics have produced documentation on it. Neither has the California Highway Patrol, whose San Francisco office is located across the street from Firefly's headquarters. Jaime Coffee, a CHP spokesperson, wrote in an email that it has not tested the Firefly devices' brightness.
Research indicates that full-motion video images on digital billboards are dangerously distracting to drivers, Wachtel said, while static images are safe if certain conditions are met: They can't be too bright, they can't be in places where drivers have to make quick decisions, and the image can't change too often.
Firefly's signs feature both static and moving ads. Gudai said the Uber-Adomni signs do, too, but that their target audience is pedestrians and vehicle passengers, not drivers. "At the end of the day, people's eyes are on the road, and that's where they should be," he said.
Blumenfield scoffed at the idea that the rooftop ads aren't distracting. "The bottom line is, that's the business," he said. "The business is to distract people. Advertisers don't pay for ads that don't get eyeballs."