Wasted Space

Most billboard advertising is ineffective, because ad agencies and their clients don’t really understand it. For proof, join us for a drive on North Central Expressway.

ed It’s a medium that’s older than Rome and, in a digital age, just about as analog as it gets. It has thrived, seemingly unchanged, even as the Internet has demolished, diminished, or re-ordered almost all other traditional media. It’s the bane of some environmentalists, to the point that four states have banned it outright. It’s surpassingly simple in concept, yet maddeningly difficult to execute well. It’s the not-so-humble billboard, known in the advertising business as outdoor advertising. And it’s thriving. 


>> When it comes to billboards, you’ve got 1.6 seconds to deliver your message.

>> A picture’s worth a thousand words.

>> Using humor can humanize your company.

“Nationally, sales were up about 8 percent in 2006, and we’re on a pace to equal that this year,” says Jeff Golimowski of the Washington, D.C.-based Outdoor Advertising Association of America. “That translates to about $7.3 billion for 2007.” 

Part of the reason for outdoor’s stubborn success is its very simplicity. Companies put up words and pictures about their brands, and people drive by and see them. You drive past these outdoor “boards” every day. Maybe you use them for your company. Maybe you should consider it. But here’s the rub: Most outdoor messages are so ineffectively presented that you (and most others) don’t notice or remember them. My guess is that about 80 percent of the money spent on outdoor advertising is largely wasted. That’s not the fault of the medium; lay the blame at the feet of the advertising agencies that create the messages and the clients who approve them.   

So, why all the difficulty? First, outdoor is a tough medium to create for. Your message doesn’t have much time: According to a 2007 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the average billboard viewing lasts just 1.6 seconds. During that eyeblink, an advertiser must capture the attention of the viewer and deliver the message in a cogent, powerful, and memorable way. 

Then there’s space: A typical board is 14 feet by 48 feet. Even a big sign like that can look pretty tiny at 60 miles per hour. When I was a young copywriter, back when there were still Burma Shave signs, the prevailing thought was that you should limit the copy to six words. But there are ways to use more words. Outdoor advertising is primarily a graphic medium, even when the content is expressed solely in type. So a clever advertiser can, if necessary, include one or two important elements (the product name, the overall theme of the ad) in one color, bracketing supporting copy in a second color. The Wall Street Journal successfully pioneered this technique a few years ago with a series of boards with more wordy copy like “The Wall” (in black) followed by a phrase like “not necessarily sexy but darned scintillating” (in red) followed by “Street Journal” (in black). The same technique is currently being used locally by Dallas-based Richards Partners, the public relations arm of The Richards Group, in its series of boards for Children’s Medical Center. Many people pass the same way each day and will read the interior copy sequentially—provided you make the experience interesting enough. For the most part, though, the answer to “How many words?” should be “Just enough.”

As this is primarily a graphic medium, the mind can more quickly absorb a strong visual than process a verbal message. An excellent example of this is a board for Jack Daniel’s that stood at press time at the northeast corner of North Central Expressway and Henderson Avenue. Stark black. Reversed out of it on the right side, in white, is the whiskey’s mark: “Old No. 7.” On the left is a bottle with its familiar black label. The only color you see is a slice of the amber whiskey within, glowing warmly and providing sensual appeal. The only other words are the legally mandated copy, and even this is handled deftly: “Drinking responsibly is a black and white issue.” This is strong reinforcement of a brand and a message made familiar by decades of consistent image building.

Similarly, a board for Plano-based Diet Dr Pepper visually provides strong appetite appeal while reinforcing the message used in other media: “Nothing diet about it.” In this campaign from Y&R, Diet Dr Pepper is presented as an indulgence. A milkshake, a stack of donuts, a pile of cookies, three dips of ice cream, and a can of the soda stand like a rank of palace guards, each with a straw poking out of its top. The four words of copy are almost superfluous. “We’ve always emphasized Diet Dr Pepper’s flavor in our advertising,” says Chris Barnes of parent Cadbury Schweppes. “We’re targeting young adults who are not traditional diet users, and the advertising works because it’s true to the actual product.” 

The best outdoor has a subtext (since there can’t be much actual text) that creates an overarching feeling about the brand. While I don’t generally enjoy puns, Southwest Airlines—through its agency GSD&M Idea City of Austin—has grown its business through groaners (“Albuquickly,” “Gumbo Jets to New Orleans”) that remind us of its destinations. Similarly, the legendary 1966 “Mass Transit” campaign, in which nuns line up to board a Volkswagen bus, is still held up as an example of the finest outdoor advertising. In each of these cases, the use of humor humanizes the company. On the general topic of subtext, selling chicken sandwiches against hamburgers from the perspective of the cows was an inspired outdoor advertising idea from Chick-fil-A and its agency, The Richards Group. The point there, of course, is that eating chicken is considered better for people, too.

Sometimes subtext is unnecessary. One of the strongest boards on Central Expressway serves the classic purpose of giving directions. Troy Aikman Ford simply offers three visual elements:  a picture of Troy, a Ford, and the dealership logo. The only copy is “Next Exit U-Turn” and a tiny Web address. Created by The Cohen Group of Houston, the ad is neither subtle nor particularly artful, but if you’re looking for a Ford and admire Troy Aikman (neither much of a stretch in this town), I’ll bet it gets your attention.

Which is the point. If most billboards are pretty ineffective, mainly because you don’t notice or remember them, you may not even recall the following examples of outdoor advertising that I believe miss the mark:

››  If you were heading north recently on Central, just south of Forest Lane you saw a picture of a guy with the headline: “He Had Severe Vascular Disease. We Had Femoral Artery Intervention.”  Then comes the name: Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas and a Web address. According to Gina Cook, marketing manager at Presbyterian Health Care System, the board was created by Commerce House of Dallas and will be up for the rest of the year. But, will anybody notice it? 

The board, which features a model who looks a little too model-y to be believable, offers a complicated message that reeks of committee-think. The message requires too much effort (1.6 seconds, remember?), and the board’s design is too bland to provide real impact.

››  If only Central Market’s advertising were as good as its stores. Its board, beautifully positioned heading south just beyond Caruth Haven, featured the world’s ugliest illustration of a bowl of cherries with the script legend: “Life is …” and the name of the store. Repeated calls to the advertising department have brought no further information about this monstrosity. I don’t blame them.

››  A final billboard, off Central Expressway at Walnut Hill, selling kidney dialysis on behalf of Fresenius Medical Care, was just plain weird. The company boasts on its Web site of being “the world’s largest integrated provider of dialysis products and services for patients with end-stage renal disease.” Pretty damn grim for an outdoor board. And, who were they trying to reach on this revolving sign that also features Mattress Giant and Koslow’s? The board features a big picture of the machine (which looks sort of like an automobile muffler), 18 words, and a logo. It treats the general public, not to mention the poor people who need the services, to a large headline: “One Patient. One Dialyzer. One Time. Every Treatment.” It then goes on to boast about the company’s 26 metro locations. Although this is the most impenetrable board I’ve ever seen, it’s a one-off and probably wouldn’t be worth mentioning here—except for the fact that Fresenius had more than $8.4 billion in sales last year and is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. If you saw this ad, would you want to buy its stock?
Mark Twain once wrote that “many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.” Trouble is that, when it comes to outdoor advertising, the reverse is true, too.

In more than 35 years as an advertising copywriter and creative director, Spencer Michlin has created outdoor advertising for such clients as Pepsi, Coke, Unilever, Frito-Lay, and Ford Trucks.  His work has won virtually every advertising award, including more than 25 Clios, and he served for four years as adjunct professor of copywriting at SMU’s Temerlin School of Advertising.