Around the corner from my house is a petrol station. Outside on the pavement is a big black board. Every week the owner writes a cute little saying or phrase on it. I love it. It puts a smile on my face. But only half the time. The other half of the time, I can’t read it. It’s just too long. I just don’t have enough time to read it, turn at the traffic light (when I’m lucky enough to catch it green) and avoid going into the car in front of me, all at the same time. And it’s never more than 10 words. No visual. No pay off line. No logo. Just a few words.
Remember that clever dude that once said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted – the trouble is, I don’t know which half”? Well, the more I think about it, the more I believe it must be outdoor advertising.
Now before you roll your eyes and say “what does the media guy know”, remember that I’m also an advertising guy and a consumer. And if I’m actively looking out for billboards and I don’t notice them, can’t read what’s on them – or worse, I don’t understand them, how will normal consumers?
Simply, the point of advertising is for people to take notice and then act on it. But if they can’t read what’s on your billboard, or they don’t understand it, how then can they act on it?
In a country where we spend so much time outside, outdoor advertising should be big. Much bigger than the current R1.5 billion per annum (according to Nielsen).
But outdoor creative needs to work really hard, otherwise money is just being wasted.
And sticking a print ad on an outdoor billboard is wasting money. Chances are that no one can read what’s on it. On a highway, travelling at 120km/h, people only have a second or two to read the billboard and understand it. So the more copy you have, the less chance of all of it actually being read and understood. And then one still has to add the visual, the logo and the pay-off line.
Now before outdoor media owners put a price on my head, let me be clear. Outdoor is a great medium. In fact, I am quite vocal about the fact that it’s my favourite medium. Because of this, I get so frustrated when I see badly done outdoor advertising.
Why do we complicate it so much? It’s really so simple. Outdoor is an awareness-building medium. As such, it can also help build a brand. And that’s it.
You cannot list and explain your product’s five intrinsic attributes on a billboard. You also cannot explain your “win an all expenses paid trip to London” competition entry mechanics on a billboard. And you most certainly cannot advertise your event on a billboard, with all the event details listed (including venue and times), the names of all the speakers (with their titles), the registration details, the booking deadline, the early booking deadline and the cost, all on one billboard! And if you have to have a photo of the minister whose department is organising the event, plus her title, plus her department’s name and her department’s logo, then billboard advertising is most definitely not the right medium for advertising the event…
But it’s not just local creative that’s problematic. Global work needs some attention as well. Too often, work that was designed for the London Underground goes up on a billboard on Rivonia Road in Sandton. Now it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that in the underground, one can basically do whatever one wants on a board. Commuters are standing around waiting for their train so they have time to read all the detail. How can this same creative be applied to a billboard on a road where people speed past it in a second or two?
I think outdoor media owners have a responsibility to assist in improving the quality of outdoor creative. The OH! Awards is one way of doing it. However, I can’t seem to find anything more recent than the 2010 winners on the OHMSA website so I’m not sure if it is still going. Anyway, be that as it may, another creative award is probably not going to improve the quality of outdoor creative. Because creative awards award exactly that: creative. Clever creative or beautiful creative. Never creative that works.
Media owners should have some rules and regulations on what’s allowed and what’s not. They should have workshops (with creative people, not media planners) on what works and what definitely does not. If a client submits bad creative, they should reject it or at least make some suggestions as to how it could be improved. They shouldn’t just take the money and run!
But sadly most do. Because who cares about bad advertising when there’s a new Range Rover in the garage? Imagine plastic surgeons getting away with bad nose jobs? It doesn’t happen. Because if someone does a bad nose job, he or she will be exposed on Carte Blanche.
So why do clients get away with bad advertising or, more specifically, bad outdoor advertising?
Outdoor should be the best of all the advertising. And you know why? Because it’s out there 24/7! Unlike a TV commercial that will only be seen on average about three or four times, consumers see billboards every day on their way to work. Think about it! Every day for three months (if not longer). They can’t turn it off. It’s there, in their face. They have to look at it. So it should be great. It should be better than the TV ad.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an attack on creative people. Everyone’s at fault here. I know how clients can add things … Another this. Another that. And before you know it, a perfectly beautiful billboard ends up looking like a retail store Christmas catalogue.
When it comes to outdoor advertising, less is really more. So think outdoor, think KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Keep the copy and the number of elements to the absolute minimum. Keep the visual simple too. And make sure that your logo is big and bold. Getting your brand name out there is surely the reason for advertising?
So, Mr and Mrs Client, next time you have to evaluate creative for an outdoor billboard, don’t just look at the pretty layout on your desk and think “ooh, nice”. Picture it on a billboard, travelling at 120km/h and then ask yourself: “Is this going to work?”
Wicus Swanepoel has been in the advertising industry for 18 years. He started as a media planner in 1994 and bowed out of corporate agencies a couple of years ago as MD at Mediagedge. He is now a freelance consultant.
This story was first published in the September 2012 issue of The Media magazine.