Billboards: yes, no, maybe?

Accepting billboards as an effective advertising avenue is a constant struggle for me, especially so in the last four years as a higher education marketer. In fact, they confound me so much I hope I can even make a coherant blog post about them.

The thing is: in theory, they should be really effective. In reality, I just don’t know if they are. There are rules, exceptions, and a lot of “ifs” when it comes to proving that your billboard ad is effective. But what are the rules? And the exceptions to those?

I’ve found that billboards are effective in trying to convey a single message to a mass audience: read this book, visit this festival, drink this beer, reserve your seats for this show. Trying to convey a deeper message, such as the essence of a university or the charm of an entire town, is a bit harder.

One billboard I see often in my travels that I think is great is a simple one that has the image of Pepsi’s logo. No text, no presence of the word “Pepsi.” Talk about brand saturation: a survey would likely show that most folks recognize Pepsi’s logo when they see it. The billboard is suggesting, without saying it, you want a Pepsi.  Oh, and look, there’s a gas station just ahead. Billboard effectiveness is all about placement, too.

Measuring the effectiveness of a billboard is the most frustrating part. It’s damn near impossible. If there’s a call to action on the billboard (go to this micro site, text this number for a free t-shirt, call here for more info) it at least allows a marketer to measure something. On the other hand, just because someone didn’t follow the call to action doesn’t mean the billboard’s message didn’t sink in.

Here are a few billboards I’ve noticed lately, for better or for worse:

  • Thumbs down: Insurance companies love the billboards with photos of insurance agents. This isn’t very effective. I see where they’re going; they’re trying to personalize their service with a friendly face. These faces are often, well, awkward, and just might do less for the brand than not having the billboard at all.
  • Thumbs up: I don’t think any company could have more reason to utilize billboards than McDonalds. And they do it very well. The only suggestion I have is to place your consumer. That is, let drivers know how far away the next McDonalds is. Once you hook ’em with the promise of a 49-cent ice cream cone, let them know how long they have to wait before they get one.

What’s the best and/or worst billboard you’ve seen lately?

2 thoughts on “Billboards: yes, no, maybe?

  1. John Henry Malik says:

    Welcome back! Missed your posts!
    Back in the Late Middle Ages, when I was studying marketing, I was told that billboards legitimize a product, i.e. they indicate that the product is in the mainstream, and serve to make the observer comfortable with a “conventional” choice. I also remember that billboards serve as a reminder of the product’s availability, not necessarily to meet an immediate need.
    The best billboard I ever saw was just recently, whereupon the current American President was compared unfavorably with Messrs. Hitler and Lenin.

  2. abbymalikpr says:

    Interesting take on billboards from the Late Middle Ages, John Henry! 🙂 Again, this is all situational, and I suppose before we did any hypothesizing about need or usefulness, it’d help to first look at the cost of advertising on billboards (it’ll be different for everyone, of course) and then determine what percentage of that is the entire advertising budget, and look at the marketing mix of other avenues. If someone is spending 5% of an entire budget on billboards, eh, probably ok. If someone is spending more than 25%, I think that’s a real problem, no matter who you are.

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