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Billboard advertising shifts during pandemic

Watchfire Signs

Putting up a billboard is a lot like drilling for oil, according to Ben Wallace, chief operating officer of Penneco.

He’d know. Penneco is a Delmont-based oil and gas company with a subsidiary — Penneco Outdoor Advertising, which owns about 30 billboards across southwestern Pennsylvania.

Both sides of the business have been battered by the fallout coronavirus pandemic. Oil prices cratered worldwide, turning negative last week. The outdoor advertising industry has taken a hit as well — though it’s not nearly so dramatic.

“Quite honestly, it hasn’t changed as much as we expected,” Wallace said. “We had a few people that asked to delay their new contracts. We’ve had a few people who said, ‘My advertising is useless because I’m closed.’ ”

About 75% of media buyers reported that they believe the pandemic will have a greater impact on advertising than the 2008 economic crisis, according to a survey conducted last month by New York-based Interactive Advertising Bureau, or IAB. Digital and traditional ad spending were already down more than 30%, while mission-based and cause-related marketing was up over 40%, the survey found.

The content of local billboards has changed to reflect the times.

Some are blank. Some have messages thanking health care workers or urging drivers to support local businesses. One on Route 119 in Southwest Greensburg reads “Westmoreland: Never Socialist.”

It is the work of former far-right county commissioner candidate John Ventre.

The idea came when thinking about covid-19 and watching the 2006 film “World Trade Center,” he said.

“I was watching the movie, and I thought this feels like a September 11th moment,” Ventre said.

Not long after the thought, he got a call from Transformation Media, the Washington County billboard company that’s a spin off of 84 Lumber. The company was looking for customers and called Ventre because he bought a billboard during his 2019 campaign.

Ventre said he wanted to put up a “social message” during the pandemic.

“We have a unique country and way of thinking,” he said.

Transformation Media did not return calls seeking comment.

Outdoor advertising companies have taken various steps to keep their customers despite the economic toll of the coronavirus-related shutdowns.

“I think that for most small businesses, uncertainty about the scope and length of the shutdowns is the biggest deterrent to moving their business forward through advertising,” said Kevil Dail, owner of Greensburg-based Statler Billboards.

Dail said he’s working with customers who need to change their plans as a result of the pandemic.

Wallace said he’s working out reduced prices and payment plans for customers who can’t pay their bills and is donating free ads on digital billboards for existing customers.

“If they’re going to suffer through the courtesy of paying us during the shutdown, then we would increase their displays,” he said.

A Penneco billboard on South Main Street in Southwest Greensburg tells drivers to “Keep Calm and Support Local Businesses.”

Lamar Advertising, one of the biggest billboard companies in the world with a regional office in Green Tree, Allegheny County, has put ads on digital billboards nationwide thanking restaurant workers, police officers, “health care heroes” and others who are still working during the pandemic.

Wallace said the long-term prognosis for the outdoor advertising industry is unclear.

Billboard bookings are usually long-term deals, which means the full effect of the shutdown isn’t immediately apparent. New bookings have dropped significantly, and Wallace thinks the economic aftershocks might last long after the pandemic ends.

“This is our piece of the world, and we’re all in it together at the moment,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646

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