Why Not a Billboard?

Why Not a Billboard Environmental Interactive Advertising title

The eyesore to the American country side and cityscapes everywhere. If it wasn’t for good art directors, they may cease to exist. When they’re such an expensive, immeasurable form of advertising for most brands, and with limited verbiage (Ogilvy’s recommended words: 5), why would somebody want to use a billboard? Typically for two reasons: direct response (Cracker Barrel’s “14 meals under $7.99 – NEXT EXIT” ads) or to create brand awareness through the mere exposure effect (Ex – You pass the same ATT ad every day on the way to work). Brand awareness works because familiarity leads to purchases.

So why not a billboard?

For one, billboards are expensive. Depending on the city, they cost tens of thousands of dollars a month to make and keep around. For your brand paying that much money and only getting to say “Hey, we’re here. We exist,” and nothing more, it feels there are better options that can provide more value than a quick laugh or another impression to support that mere exposure effect. Why can’t you create exposure to a brand that solves a problem?

Just because a billboard exists doesn’t mean that’s how to say you exist in the physical world. There are a million places in the world to place your brand, and in today’s participation age, to interact with it. You can’t interact with a thin, stagnant rectangle. That is, unless it’s a digital screen equipped with retina sensors and GPS locators in the form of one big Eye of Sauron… In Leo Burnett’s “HumanKind,” their goal is to integrate advertising into the world’s social fabric. With mobile phones & technology advances, you see agencies like Manifest Digital and others popping up to create apps that are incorporated into audience’s lifestyles. Meanwhile, billboards just sit there with jealousy. These mobile apps and particicpatory ads have a new purpose. A purpose beyond saying “Hey, look at me and what I have to say.” Participatory ads say something more like “Oh, what are you up to? Let me help you with that.”

This audience participation leads you to remembering that interaction, because people learn most and retain information best by doing. This leads to taking ownership of the brand, and hopefully ends up with the person becoming the ultimate goal of advertising: a brand advocate who lives their life in accordance with the brand’s purpose and identity.

In February, I helped a Wabash advertising mentor with an advertising overview for students. I spoke about online advertising, but it was my brother Nic’s take on media planning that stuck with me. In his talk on media planning, he addressed the knock that only people in the creative advertising agencies are creative, and that media buyers aren’t creative. He said with all the places you can put media today, that’s simply not true. And I totally agree. Really, the media placement sets the stage for the creative message if the media’s bought first. Which is why, after speaking with a big agency media planner, that media planners are now at the same table as the creative agencies during the planning process. There’s simply too many places you can put an ad for a copywriter and art director to make a well-informed decision for the client. Shoot, Adweek even put up a video from media leader Monica Karo talking about it this week after I wrote this post!

Monica Karo Adweek Interview

Monica touches on the fact that media agencies are beginning to be involved earlier in the creative ideation process due to ever expanding media options.

So for today’s media planners, the times are certainly more exciting. Sure, they can go with the standard billboard and get their name out there to a mass amount of people. But they’ll risk being ignored because like online display ads, billboards are in a specific, reiterated shape and location that we’ve been trained to ignore. Their value is minimal, the ad is just an ad, not a solution. On the other hand, an environmental, experiential ad provides value by solving audience problems that create not just consumers, but brand advocates. Yes, these ads, like IBM’s environmental bench ads below, create product awareness. But these ads “convey a product truth in an engaging, entertaining way,” one of Leo Burnett’s main goals in the path to HumanKind acts. If you do that, the product and brand get remembered, and the ad viewer/user is helped at that viewing-moment. Everybody wins.

IBM Chair Ad

IBM shelter ad

IBM ramp ad

Now, I’m not saying you need to turn a billboard into a giant water generation system (if you can, do it),


but there’s simply better ways to use ad dollars.

HumanKind says that “If communication is trying to change human behavior, the communication itself needs to be located within that behavior.” Screw the billboard. Find a different shape.


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