Today, the outdoor billboard industry includes not just the small 8-sheet poster along your local rural road; it includes mammoth signs that tower above the tens of thousands of people who pass through Times Square each day. It includes rolling advertisements on the sides of trucks and buses. It includes a plethora of signage at speedways, and in sports stadiums. And it includes “outdoor furniture” signage comprised of bus shelters, benches and just about anyplace else where people congregate.
Like them or not, outdoor billboards are here to stay, and the industry has never looked brighter. Overall spending on outdoor advertising is expected to grow to $67 billion, in 2022. Moreover, billboards are the place to see some of the most creative work in advertising.
A Mobile Society
Contemporary social trends favor billboards. Americans are spending fewer hours at home, where TV, cable, magazines, newspapers, books, and the Internet all clamor for attention. People are spending more time than ever in their cars – daily vehicle trips are up 110% since 1970, and the number of cars on the road is up by 147%. For most people stuck in traffic, the only media options are radio and billboards. The number of people taking airline trips is 67 million and Americans take nearly 10 billion trips via public transportation – both trends which are expected to grow in the future. In any of these venues, it is hard to miss the outdoor messages clamoring for attention.
Computer painting technology has all but eliminated the old-fashioned sign painter, and plywood has given way to durable vinyl that can be cut to any size, then rolled into tubes for easy shipping. Huge graphics can be produced more quickly and at lower cost, and digital printing ensures that ads look precisely the same everywhere.
The new computer-painting technology used by the industry is making outdoor billboards brighter, more exciting, and upbeat. Their messages are typically more clever, humorous and artistic. Like other rising stars of the information age, billboards have gone high tech. One of the latest developments are digital billboards such as this one in Times Square that changes images controlled by a computer. The newest addition to the outdoor industry are outdoor billboards powered by wind and sun using wind turbines and solar panels which will save thousands in electric costs.
The Morphing of Outdoor
“Outdoor used to be known as the beer, butts, and babes medium,” says Andrea MacDonald, president of MacDonald Media, a New York agency that specializes in out of home advertising. Now, she says, “everything’s changed. New technology has made us more creative, and advertisers are seeing billboards in a new light.”
To make sure they stand out in the crowd, modern billboards are taking even new forms. In Chicago, Transit Display International (TDI), wrapped a two car, 96-foot-long commuter train with an ad. And in some areas, no space is left uncovered. For example, in New York’s World Trade Center, TDI helped Dodge take over every possible space of the rail station floors, walls, posters, banners, and escalators to create a single exhibit.
To announce a new magazine reaching younger readers, the headquarters of AARP was draped in fabric, and similarly the World Bank draped its building in fabric to support , the cause. Transit kiosks, posters and other forms of outdoor can be strategically placed around Washington, DC Metro stops at the Pentagon or an executive branch agency such as the Department of Transportation to make a statement about a campaign or issue.
Since 1996, the Big Four of billboards–Outdoor Systems, Eller, Clear Channel and Lamar–have spent more than $5 billion to gobble up dozens of mom-and-pop operators, as well as the outdoor divisions of big companies like Gannett and 3M. Together they control about 40% of the revenues generated by the 400,000 or so billboards across America. As industry giants, they can operate efficiently and provide one-stop shopping to national advertisers.
PSA Communications Advantages
Outdoor is perhaps the most overlooked medium of all when it comes to launching PSA campaigns. Admittedly, the cost of printing billboard paper can be expensive, but given the typical results we have experienced for clients, we believe that outdoor provides excellent exposure opportunities. Since we often get photos of the placements, it is proof that the exposure occurred.
- When used to inform the public about public causes, outdoor billboards provide many different communications advantages, and the total universe of outdoor opportunities is almost unlimited, as shown by the following table provided by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Some of these advantages include:
- Outdoor is typically available even in towns that are too small to have a radio station or a local newspaper.
- Billboards can provide communications reach right down to the neighborhood level. This may be useful if your campaign is concentrating on inner city residents or high school students, and you can convince the outdoor billboard company to post your PSA messages nearby.
- When used in conjunction with other forms of outdoor – sports stadium signage, transit and place-based media – they can provide the communications effectiveness of a local network, giving you reach and frequency throughout the community.
- Public service messages on outdoor posters are often available because outdoor companies don’t want to have an ugly sign with blank paper staring out at the public for an extended period of time.
Airport Dioramas & Mall Poster
Perhaps the area where outdoor has seen the greatest growth is at airports. The total number of visitors at the top 44 airports in the U.S. tops 765 million passengers and over a half a billion people pass through just the top 10 airports. There are message opportunities now aboard the airlines via in-flight videos, on the drop-down tables in each seat, the napkins placed on the tables, and even on the bottom of the security bins where passengers place their items before going through security screening. There are dioramas (backlit signs) in the terminals and on video screens while you wait for your luggage. Like it or not, the messages are inescapable.
Shopping Mall Displays
Mall displays come in a variety of different formats and sizes ranging from overhead banners, to exterior signage. Mall banners are large format, double-sided frames hung in the atrium of a mall offering commanding exposure to virtually every mall shopper. Faces are printed digitally using high resolution reproduction that vividly recreates each piece of creative. Banners are presented in the vertical “magazine” format so only one piece of artwork is required.
Mall posters, the most dominant mall media, are backlit and located at eye level at major decision points in the mall – usually associated with a directory unit. Specialty mall advertising consists of a range of media formats – trumpet banners, decals, escalator wraps – that enable marketers to dominate the mall environment. Located in in major urban malls, specialty media provide a unique branding opportunity to provide consumers with multiple exposure opportunities.
Rail/Transit/Bus Stop Signage
Transit advertising – and corresponding PSA availabilities – are the confluence of several factors. To reach busy commuters, transit advertising now takes many forms. These range from subway platform signage, ads on the sides, back and interiors of passenger buses and subways. Even the columns and floors of waiting areas are being covered. Similar to airport dioramas, the placement of PSAs in these venues requires a customized approach, working with the various companies that control the space, and then providing customized signage to fit the various availabilities.
In conclusion, a society constantly in motion, more available locations, and the power of outdoor to convey a compelling message, are all trends that have contributed to the success of outdoor. One thing that hasn’t changed – those who control access to outdoor signage do not want to see an empty sign or poster – and that is what creates almost unlimited opportunities for PSA placement.
For additional resources on the outdoor industry, go to www.oaaa.org. Here you will see design tips, outdoor facts and figures, and a glossary of terms.
Bill Goodwill is CEO of Goodwill Communications, a Virginia-based company that specializes in PSA distribution and evaluation.