Billboards can be fun. Creative. Effective. And affordable.
It all depends on how you work on it.
Says P.S. Pillai, media controller, TBWA Anthem, "Nobody goes to a hoarding to read it. It must grab your attention with an arresting visual and crisp copy."
Copy like the billboard that faced London's favourite jumping point for would-be suicides—"Before you jump, give us a call." The ad was for a job site.
The billboard has suffered from its poor image—in the words of one US-based commentator, it was a "beer, butts, and babes," medium. And, in the '50s when television came, just like old billboards, the medium itself began to fade.
Yet, now, the billboard is back. The reason? Cars.
As more and more automobiles pile on to the roads, many more people are spending their time in traffic jams. When stuck in a car, the only medium that can reach a potential advertiser is the car radio or the billboard—whether it is on a post, stuck on the bumper of the car ahead, or on the side of the street. In the United States, outdoor advertising is growing by nearly 10 per cent an year, faster than newspapers, magazines and broadcast television, though not as fast as the cable or the internet. In 1999, it is estimated that in the US, advertisers spend $4.8 billion on out of home media—twice what was spend on online advertising.
The same could happen in India. With more than 500 more cars going on the Delhi roads everyday, and traffic expected to be moving at a snail's pace by 2010, the billboard may yet arise from the "just another board" tag that it now is saddled with.
What makes a billboard successful? Several factors, such as the type of crowds that hang out at a particular place. For example, one study by Chaitra Leo Burnett showed that Reebok advertisements were much more effective at Priya, a popular hang out for young people in the capital, than they were at Connaught Place, where the crowd was much more mixed. Other factors included the speed at which traffic moved, the size of the hoarding, the type of hoarding, the angle from the street and the height of the board.
Even factors like the colour of the hoarding, and the background against which it is have an effect. Thus black is not a very good idea, nor are lights. "Nobody, and especially not someone mad at being locked in traffic is going to take the trouble to read what the bulbs spell out. If you want to get your message across, keep it stark and simple," says a Delhi-based creative director, taking a dim view of the recent AXE "Voodoo" campaign. Adds Amar Wadhwa, who as a media supervisor at Chaitra Leo Brunnet, did a study on billboard advertising in the capital, "You may not have the same effect with two different hoardings at the same location. A lot depends on how uncomplicated and catching the message is."
In the US, billboards are finally emerging out of the shadows of television advertising.
Companies like Gap and Disney are shelling out more than $100,000 a month for attention getting displays in New York's Times Square and along Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Ironically, outdoor advertising played a crucial role in the United States and Britain, as well as in Europe, before the 1950s. It was a potent medium to convince young men to rally to the flag during both the world wars. Among the most famous posters calling for volunteers during the First World War was the "England needs YOU!" poster, with a glowering Lord Kitchener asking for young men to fight in France.
During the Second World War, the "whoo's afraaid of you, Mr. Hiiitler?" poster, on the back of London buses, summed up the defiant spirit of a city determined to stand uo to Nazi tyranny.
Yet in India, the medium has been seen as a nuisance by the authorities. The Delhi government is considering banning the media, and in Bombay, the number of hoardings are strictly restricted. "India is very disorganised, and then there is both an interfering government and small time contractors. Both have destroyed the media to a large extent," says Pillai.
That may change with the advent of technology. One of the new innovations in the area is the I-Board, which is built on Internet-technology, and can use any telecom backbone facility available to display a sequence of rapidly changing advertisements by a host of different advertisers. The I-Board has already been introduced in Malaysia.
But, at the end of the day, whatever the technology, the billboard that will remain in your mind, long after the paint has begun to peel away, will be the one that is simple. Effective. And straight to the point.
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