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A Medium in need of Disruption.

The breathless promotion of outdoor advertising by its trade organization, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), is chest-pounding run amuck.

“Out-of-home media,” as it is grandiosely referred to by its most enthusiastic proponents, is staking out a position that the billboard is “always on” and “full screen.” For better or worse, ain’t that the truth.

The recent trade campaign featuring the hashtag #GetOutOfHome, running mostly in public transit-rich urban centers like Manhattan, highlights the mediums’ self-anointed position as not just indispensable to any marketer’s brand awareness toolbox, but the only display advertising worth buying. When flexing its creative muscle properly, I whole-heartedly agree. But let's consider the industry’s latest effort to sell itself to advertisers, and compare its creative call-to-arms with the reality of the billboard landscape. Most billboards are merely signage that in many parts of rural and suburban America do little more than pollute the commuter’s route home. Some of these boards are so poorly rendered they are laughable.

Down here in lower Alabama, without the benefit of much in the way of rapid transit systems or other cityscape features that invite sexy out-of-home advertising placements like large wall wraps and transit station take-overs, highway billboards are the go-to medium for reaching the traveling public. Unfortunately, often the very worst roadside attractions are our billboards and the vast majority are truly awful. Many are so cluttered with superfluous messaging, website addresses and phone numbers that the product or service being advertised remains a mystery. Yet this highway blight is the reality of out-of-home media here and most everywhere. The industry’s campaign to promote itself is excellent, and their member donor companies, like Lamar and OutFront, sell a heck of a lot of billboards. But their clients- the advertisers- haven’t gotten the message that less is more when it comes to billboard communications. Out-of-home, like any medium, is an opportunity to build awareness with an engaging and memorable creative message. Consider this array along Route 59 in Baldwin County, Alabama.

These advertisers are all engaged in successful operations and, despite my diagnosis to the contrary, whatever they're doing with their billboards is working. Creative? Engaging? Memorable? Probably not, but beauty and purpose are in the eye of the consumer (and more importantly, the advertiser.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good billboard, and I've designed dozens over the course of my long career. As a self-anointed out-of-home pundit, I’ve contributed glowing assessments of the medium. In fact, I once oversaw a portfolio of over a hundred and twenty billboards throughout the southeast US, and my contribution to their upkeep and upgrade will hopefully remain an enduring accretive contribution to that particular enterprise.

A good outdoor campaign can be at least as impactful as anything done on commercial television. ‘Got Milk’ and ‘Think Different’ are two brilliant examples of billboard advertising taken to high art. But even without the benefit of Chiat Day, common sense should prevail when the client sends artwork to the billboard company. The out-of-home industry is doing their very best to educate advertisers, providing tools and materials to improve the quality of our roadside views. But perhaps more aggressive policing of our billboard environment is needed.

On the positive side of the creative ledger, there are some businesses that recognize proximity to billboards which are abhorrent may be an opportunity to stand out in the crowd. and lift their own brands above the mass of crap. A disruptive approach to the medium may be the order of the day. On a rural Alabama back road, one of many two-lane blacktops that connect small towns to the interstates, I noticed this interesting example of disruption.

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss this installation as the screw up of an illiterate worker, as I did. Seven years ago I worked for a large resort in Singapore that included a large, recently opened shopping mall. Many of its stores were still unoccupied or in the process of renovation by the incoming tenant. To hide the emptiness of the construction, hoardings- plywood walls, usually painted black- obscured the vacant shop or its reconstruction. In an effort to pretty up the place, and to help promote restaurants in the mall, we would frequently wrap these walls with large murals. On more than one occasion during an inspection walk-through, we would spot murals hung upside down. I assumed that this offering on Highway 21 was a similar screw-up, but I was mistaken. I called the Honda dealership whose inverted message adorned the board and was told emphatically that this display was entirely intentional. As a result, the board was generating a lot of phone calls. The sales manager could not say with certainty that the board was helping to increase sales, but it was definitely improving awareness, and there is nothing wrong with. I thought it was a brilliant approach, and as it turned out, this upside-down billboard was not the local Honda dealership’s idea. It was inspired by yet another local south Alabama business, Lamberts Café, a very well-known diner that had been embracing this tactic for years. Their board seemed more deliberate because the directional at the footer of the upside-down message was printed right-side up.

Regardless, I tip my hat to both of these businesses, putting a spin on a traditional media channel that is, for the most part, uninteresting, and in so many instances, just plain ugly. Let’s see if our colleagues in the out-of-home media industry, including the ad agencies brokering the billboard deals, can step up their game and walk the walk. Don’t just tell the world that your medium is effective because “it’s always on” or “truly full-screen.” Help your clients figure out how to creatively unlock the potential of a billboard as more than just signage and, in the process, help improve the quality of our highway landscapes. That's my two cents.


By Michael Perhaes

An innovative hospitality marketing strategist and brand management professional offering regional and international experience within highly competitive, diverse markets. A creative thinker and hands-on, passionate leader relying on sound research while adhering to reliable measurement protocols.

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