PODCAST: The abundance of terrible billboards but nonetheless billboards are not dead!

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Additional disclaimer: This story came out of me attending Advertising Week in New York City in 2017 free of charge as Adobe’s guest.

At Advertising Week 2017 in New York City some of the big topics were:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Automation in advertising
  • Transparency (yay!)
  • Personalization
  • Other innovations

I didn’t hear much talk about billboards – digital or analog – despite the event being around Times Square, which is basically one big collection of billboards:

View from hotel gym at Times Square
View from hotel gym at Times Square

View from the Adobe offices in NYC.

And as you can listen and read in the podcast below, I’m usually not a big fan of billboards – unless they are good. One good one (aka it got my attention) was from United Airlines on my way to LaGuardia. It said:

Wrong way. Fly United out of Newark

Something like that. Being mostly an American Airlines flyer it certainly got my attention. Though it likely won’t get me to change to United and to fly out of Newark. It got my attention but of course didn’t get me to see the reasons. And United also flies out of LaGuardia.

Anyway, I thought it was a well targeted ad and not for every single person driving by. Just the travelers heading to LaGuardia. If I was based in New York maybe it would get me to check flights out of Newark.

I don’t see billboards going away anytime soon, but maybe they can evolve using some of the other topics from Ad Week.

Imagine personalized billboards! Maybe I’m dreaming and we all have to be wearing Google Glass type devices first for that! Who knows what else is next in billboards but given the amount of money they make for suppliers I doubt they’ll disappear anytime soon. Might as well figure out a way to evolve them and innovate here as well.

The below was first published in 2015:

The abundance of terrible billboards

Billboards are one way to get our stories out. Of course it costs money to buy the space. Over the years, I’ve seen an abundance of terrible billboards. Terrible as in that they can’t be read and have too much information on them.

This podcast discusses the issue and what we might be able to do about it:

Audio not playing or can’t listen right now? Try the transcript below:

Transcription for PODCAST: The abundance of terrible billboards

Christoph Trappe here with The Authentic Storytelling Project, and of course one way to get the message out is billboards. Now, some of us might look at billboards, some might not as we’re driving down the road, typically the interstate, We’re seeing them in town, of course, too.

But billboards are kind of an interesting beast. They’ve been around for a long, long time, but in my travels in 2014 on the road, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of just terrible, terrible billboards. And I don’t mean terrible because of the messaging. I can’t actually tell you what the message was about in most of them. They’re so hard to read. You’re driving 65, 70 miles an hour depending on where it is that you’re traveling, depending on the speed limit of course, but you can’t read them! They have so much text on them, it’s so hard to read. So it’s a waste of space. People can’t see them, people don’t know what they’re trying to tell you, they have a number of pictures…

Now at some point I heard somewhere that a billboard should be 7 words or under. So no more than 7 words for people to actually remember what they say. Some of the ones that have worked for me are the ones that have a recognizable logo on them and then, you know, it says something like, “Turn right in 3 minutes,” or, “Turn right in a quarter mile.” Of course, the 3 minutes remark is really effective because you can just look at the clock and say, “Hey am I almost there or not?” A quarter of a mile, a little harder. I think in my car, you can’t even tell quarter miles- you just see full miles. But if it’s a recognizable logo, that’s easy to figure out what it’s about right? It’s a Starbucks logo or a hotel or something that is familiar to you.

Now if it’s a brand that you know nothing about, a little harder! Why would we pull over? Is that a restaurant, is that a grocery store, is that a place to stay? But there is just a tremendous amount of billboards out there that are unreadable, don’t make any sense, and you just can’t see what they’re about, what they want you to do. Now, am I going to get my phone out and try to remember a telephone number to call? Probably not. You know, you’d have to pull over, which is very unlikely if you’re driving down the road on the interstate for example or a highway. But there has to be something that you can do or something that you at least can remember.

So why are some of these billboards so bad? Now I think one likely explanation might be that they’re designed by committee. The approval process is lengthy, you have to show them to a number of people, everybody wants to add something else, you’ve got to have this logo, have this phone number, we need to add the website… Don’t get me wrong, I’m a digital guy. I like websites, I like apps, I’m on the phone all the time, I communicate digitally much better than I do in some of the more traditional channels, or not better, but I prefer those channels. But a website on a billboard- am I really going to get on my phone and type in a website and check out whatever they want me to check out? Probably not. You know, same with a QR code. I probably wouldn’t pull over and scan it if I see it on a billboard.

So why do we need to have all these different things? Keep the message simple. If it is designed by committee, cut down the approval process. Have a small group, 2 to 3 people, who work on the messaging and then get it approved. Don’t add yet another thing.

There was one billboard I saw. It had pictures of like 10, 15 people on it, and these 10 or 15 people are part of this exclusive club, and guess what? I can’t even tell who the people are! And this billboard, I didn’t even see on an interstate going by. I’m driving by it at like 35 miles an hour, 30 miles an hour, so it’s not even that fast and you still can’t see because it’s just too much stuff. So, simplify the message Simple is good. Simple is beautiful, and people will remember.

That’s all I have for billboards. I don’t think billboards need to go away necessarily, but if we’re going to use them, let’s make them useful, readable, understandable and memorable. Our audiences will thank us.

Christoph Trappe, The Authentic Storytelling Project