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Better Billboards
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Outdoor Is A Chance To Improve Reality, Not Clutter It Up

There's a scene early in "Blade Runner" in which a blimp covered in big, billboard-like TV screens hovers over Harrison Ford and announces "a better life awaits you in the off-world colonies." Like many visions of the future, this wasn't terribly futuristic -- imagining billboards that are simply loud and intrusive isn't much more than a variation on the past -- and I'd say there's yet to be a true revolution in outdoor advertising. So I'd like to propose we start one.

Outdoor advertising is interruption marketing, by definition; nobody looks up from driving along a freeway or walking along a street with hopes of seeing a giant commercial message. Advertisers have responded with considerable ingenuity, creating 3D billboards, screens that change (mechanically or electronically), and any number of permutations of creative content, from the scandalous to the profane.

"A better life awaits you…"

This is old thinking writ large (yuck yuck), conceiving the medium of billboards as nothing more than giant print ads and their marketing purpose to promote brand messages or attributes. It's wrong. Every time consumers encounter commercial speech (and I include viral videos and other supposedly non-marketing or 'free' exposure in that brands have paid for the privilege of it) needs to have meaning, relevance, and utility. There has to be a purpose beyond capturing attention and telling consumers something about a brand or, worse, doing nothing more than entertaining them.

A better purpose for outdoor would be to give it actionable purpose, simply put. A billboard could prompt action by being relevant to:

  • Environment: Imagine a billboard that told you something that had immediate utility to where you were and what you were doing. Could it tell you the latest freeway delays or train schedules? This would be far more meaningful and useful than any message about a brand, yet wouldn't you appreciate the brand for providing it? What about billboards that provide historical or cultural information? The idea would be to revolutionize outdoor away from being signage on the environment and into content within environments.
  • Personal Need: What about billboards that changed messaging based on air temperature or weather in general, so they'd promote nearby umbrella retailers on rainy days, or discounts on cool drinks on warm days? What else could billboards do to key into immediate personal needs? How about sending an SMS that identified a thirst, fear, or whatever, and the billboard responded with a tip and perhaps cents-off offer from somewhere nearby? Could this make billboards destinations more than interruptions?
  • Brand Benefit: I've never understood why billboards aren't outright invitations to passers-by to do something immediately -- text, call, whatever -- to get some value-added offer from brands. Turn them into direct marketing tools instead of seeing them as generators of image or awareness. This would let people choose to ignore the pitch while still grasping its potential benefit…i.e. not be insulted by the interruption.

Interactivity doesn't have to rely on technology, but there sure are ways to make this medium far more participatory. Perhaps we can use the innovations of engagement that are being aggressively applied to Internet experience (and multimedia in general) and test what it would look and feel like in reality. Isn't this what "augmented reality" is all about? Well, why not augment reality with any and every item within it?

It all starts with a new approach to understanding and delivering relevance and purpose. True participation works -- do this for that -- which means that interruption isn't necessarily a bad thing. Just ask somebody standing under a falling anvil, a commuter about to get stuck in traffic, or a pedestrian in dire need of a cold drink.

There's immense opportunity for better billboards, don't you think?

Added: 14th October 2010


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