As part of New York’s Documentary Festival over the past weekend, the premiere of the feature-length documentary, THIS SPACE AVAILABLE continues the discussion of “how much visual clutter is too much.” The stat that is shown in the available video segments is that 60,000 football fields would be plastered with graphics if you were to put all the U.S. Billboards together. It would be considerably more than that if you include all the other forms of outdoor advertising that is pervasive throughout our communities – window clings, video screens, floor clings, bus sides, shelter ads, bus bench signs, and on and on… It all begs the question of effectiveness. Yes, the space is available – some legal and some not – but what can we do to make it effective.
Though I have not seen the documentary, it seemingly does not offer solutions. It focuses on the ever-increasing attempts by advertisers to stand out in an ever-increasing saturation of imagery and competition for eyeballs. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that, with our collective short attention spans, the easy solution might seem to be the placement of ads everywhere and in every form. Sadly, I don’t think the answer is adding video screens in McDonald’s locations to add advertising revenue. While that might be good for McD’s bottom line, the effectiveness could be questionable.
So, it really comes down to placement and context. With everyone trying to out-do each other, it will effectively just add noise and the placements will mean nothing without relevance to time and space. Certainly, when it comes to billboards, the kings of context are those middle-of-nowhere interstate locations that make use of vast emptiness to run a series of sometimes humorous billboards in the hopes of making you turn off to try the nuts, pea soup, gumbo or alligator bites. Though those placements fit contextually, they are not about the big money. The big money is in the locations where the signage “noise” is reaching excruciating levels – and the key is tailoring the image and message to its placement.
Even bringing it to a smaller level makes it clearer. Those ads that are placed over urinals in men’s rooms are fine. They have quite a bit of the viewer’s attention, but do you really want to place a realtor’s ad there or some type of non-profit message? Regardless of the advertiser, the ad will work if they mold the message to fit the placement. Those ads that tie the product somehow into the baseness of what is done at a urinal are memorable, while the others are forgotten before the hands are dried. The same can be said for large format billboards.
[UPDATE] — After writing this post in the morning, I was driving in West LA and came to an intersection stop light with two digital billboards in front of me. One had cycled through to the ad for the 3PM Nate Berkus show on NBC and the other had cycled to the Dr. Phil show at 3PM on CBS. It was interesting to see both competing shows in the same cycle, but it was even more interesting to note that neither of them took advantage of digital technology. Neither listed the days topic and neither played with the time or location. It was 15 minutes to air when I hit the intersection and they could have played with the time by offering a dynamic warning to get in front of a TV in time to view. Or, they could have changed the message later, when the show was airing, to make some snide comment like “Wouldn’t you rather be watching Dr. Phil than sitting in traffic?” Granted, the copy is low hanging fruit, but they should be able to come up with something smarter. If they can’t do something dynamic based on time, they should be pushing for copy related to the location. The server of the unit could say they don’t offer dynamic updates, but they should be pressed to do so. There was a time that online publishers stated that they couldn’t offer dynamic messaging and that thought is now in the past due to businesses pushing for that ability. —
Just placing big images in big spaces does not always assure the best bang for the buck – and regardless of what people, politicians and activists might be saying about clutter, the dollar is key. In its simplest form, why would a brand that wants to generate affinity and goodwill with consumers want to piss them off? Everyone appreciates – and hopefully, remembers – a smart ad that related to its time and place. We see samples of success in that through all modes of advertising. When you think about it, it isn’t that hard to do.
It is not enough to settle for the easy way out and continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done “just because” no longer cuts it. With the streamlining of production, duplication, distribution and placement, it is easier and more cost-effective than ever to make all forms of media contextually relevant to its placement.
The Space Is Available, it is up to us to make it worthwhile.