Big, bold and in your face
Billboards, signs and back-lit posters are increasing ad noise

If it seems that every time you turn your head you are looking at a sign, billboard or poster, you are not far from the truth. What advertisers call "outdoor media," is one of the fastest growth ad vehicles in the country.

"It's big and bold and in your face," said Maria Castrichini, a media consultant with Le Groupe TMC. The company recommended extensive signage use in a recent campaign to promote Michelin's return to the Grand Prix, capitalizing on the fact that the only way fans could get to the event was by metro.

"We dominated the subway," said Castrichini. Signs were placed on metro cars and a monster 60' billboard was installed in the Berri station.

"We wanted to position Michelin as a leader in its field," said Castrichini, who lucked into good timing, when the promotion coincided with a race win by Ralph Schumacher, who was driving a car that used Michelin tires.

Marketers love billboards because unlike with television and radio, pedestrians and motorists can't change the channel. As a result, companies have been buying outdoor advertising like crazy. Spending on billboards and comparable media has jumped 8.9% to $293 million in 2000, building on five straight years of double-digit growth.

Sign companies have been seeking out locations and rushing to build new platforms. The total inventory of available spaces has jumped 37.2 per cent to 41,736 in the last five years according to the Canadian Outdoor Measurement Bureau.

Technology has played a big role in the growth of signage. Digital imaging and output devices have made it possible to produce bigger, cheaper and higher quality boards than ever before, and many advertisers are going to greater lengths to stand out. For example last year Metro nailed real food carts to its billboards to add a three dimensional quality.

Other companies are using increasingly bigger platforms to make an impression. For example Astral Media was able to convince Molson to give it access to three walls on an abandoned brewery on Toronto's Gardiner Expressway. The company then leased the space to Apple Canada, which used mountain climbers to install three of the largest billboards in Canada, in front of the almost 200,000 cars that drive by the site each day.

Companies are also installing increasingly sophisticated back-lit platforms to make the signs visible at night. Back-lighting also makes the ad designer's job easier by increasing the brightness of the colors that they have to play with.

In fact designers have a key role in determining the effectiveness of outdoor media. "The creative recipe dictates your success," said Castrichini. "With some creative you don't understand what the hell (the advertiser) is doing. But then Nike comes along and puts just its swoosh on the board, and you get it right away."

The problem with trying to get the message out on the increasing number of these bigger, brighter and bolder billboards, is that they it's like drugs. You have to do more and more to get the same effect. Another complication is that are increasing signals that the public is being overloaded with advertising, and billboards are cutting into people's increasingly rare "unbranded" time.

Decades ago, Pat Brown, former California governor made probably one of the most astute observations on billboard advertising. "When a man throws an empty cigarette package from an automobile, he is liable to a fine," said Brown. "When a man throws a billboard across a view, he is richly rewarded."

Unlike radio, television and print advertising, which support free content, billboards supply the public nothing except visual pollution. If the sign companies aren't careful about their bigger, bolder and brighter platforms, they will be the most obvious targets of a public backlash.

No less a figure than advertising great David Ogilvy detested billboards because of the negative effect they had on the American landscape. "I can't believe that the free enterprise system would be irrevocably damaged if they were abolished," he wrote.


Photo captions: Michelin dominated the subway with its recent Grand Prix campaign (1) + (2), and Apple recently used mountain climbers to install the largest billboard in Canada (3) on an abandoned Molson brewery on Toronto's Gardiner expressway.


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