Billboards may be ugly, but advertisers still need them

Opposition to billboard and outdoor advertising is mounting, arguably at too great a cost

A Parisian billboard transformed into a work of art by Etienne Lavie (
A Parisian billboard transformed into a work of art by Etienne Lavie ( 

For those seeking a foothold in emerging markets, São Paulo of the 2000s – one of the world’s most populated cities and fastest growing economies – was earmarked as an easy advertising opportunity. Billboards, bench ads, car wraps and exterior signage were all pounced upon by opportunistic brands, and before long towering billboards craned over the streets, while marketing speak was plastered against every space that could conceivably be sold.

Far from an isolated case, out of home (OOH) advertising has grown exponentially not just in São Paulo but in emerging markets generally, and with little in the way of regulation to temper its encroachment. In 2003 and 2004, growth clocked in at an impressive 22 and 15 percent, compared with global averages of 4.7 and 11 percent, and São Paulo, like so many cities before it, was lost among a crowd of neon signs and showpiece campaigns. The influx was an unspectacular event; that is until activist groups and city authorities were later united by a vision to banish the billboard.

“We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution”, said São Paulo’s then Mayor Gilberto Kassab. By clamping down on billboards the world’s fourth largest municipality triggered a trend that, almost 10 years later, is still gathering momentum. “When advertising is used for good, it can be a powerful tool. Effective social marketing campaigns can change behaviour for the better. Unfortunately consumer product advertising can change behaviour for the worse – and typically does. So the best is to simply get rid of all billboards”, said Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organisation based in Washington DC.

Does the sickly, overweight American public really need to be primed to drink more Coca-Cola or eat more Big-Macs?

This idea of a billboard ban is by no means a new one, yet it’s one that is gaining in popularity, as a great and growing number of activist groups work towards cleansing the city of OOH advertising, mostly on the basis that it constitutes visual pollution. In turn, local authorities are beginning to question the supposed benefits associated with OOH advertising, not to mention the sector’s enduring influence – or lack thereof – in the digital age.

Cleaning the city
In the case of São Paulo, the aptly named ‘clean city law’ made outdoor advertising illegal. Almost $8m fines were issued in the name of cleansing the city’s advertising scourge and within a year 15,000 billboards had been taken down and 300,000 oversized storefront signs reduced to an acceptable minimum. Fearing that the removal of these ads would entail a revenue loss of $133m and a net job loss of 20,000, the law has actually done much to uncover previously unseen areas and in 2011 enjoyed support from 70 percent of the population, who said the ban had benefited them in some way.

Similarly, in 2009 Chennai banned billboards, and several US states, including Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska enjoy the distinction of being billboard-free. Scenic America puts the number of cities and communities that prohibit billboards at 1,500 and argues that doing so can bring both aesthetic and financial benefits to practicing communities. “Billboards are certainly visual clutter”, said Assadourian. “The goal of billboard advertisements is to direct attention to them, as opposed to the broader setting, and in competition with other billboards. Hence, billboards tend to spawn more and more distracting billboards. But worse than them being clutter is the fact that billboards typically advertise products that are unnecessary or often cause ill-being to people or the planet (or both). Does the sickly overweight American public really need to be primed to drink more Coca-Cola or eat more Big-Macs? If billboards were dedicated only to social marketing – advocating for wearing seat belts, spending more time with your children, eating less and eating healthier foods, and quitting smoking, I could understand their limited use, but their current use is self-destructive.”

Visually stimulating
Those in favour of billboard advertising, meanwhile, argue that the opposition is contained to a select few instances. “Consumers welcome OOH advertising because they recognise it as visually stimulating, creative and emotionally seductive”, said Alan Brydon, CEO of Outsmart, the UK marketing body for the OOH industry. “OOH sites symbolise renewal, modernity, convenience and the excitement of the modern urban experience.” In support of this view, Allie McAlpin, Communications Director for the Lamar Advertising Company, one of the largest outdoor advertising companies in North America, said: “We strictly adhere to local ordinances to help preserve scenic beauty. We also have extensive experience working with local city planners, landscape architects and others to create signage that is embraced by our communities. Many of our billboards, especially in major cities such as NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago, are spectacular landmarks that enhance the urban environment.”

However, the extent of the criticism and its influence on policy decisions would suggest otherwise. Across the Atlantic, Paris has set in motion plans to reduce the number of ad hoardings by a third, and earlier this year Tehran replaced all of its 1,500 advertising billboards with art for 10 days, again pointing to a global movement rather than a handful of isolated incidents. Other cities that have considered or implemented bans include – though are not excluded to – New York, Canberra, Paris, Bristol and Grenoble.

Of this sample, the last is of especial importance in that it was the first city in Europe to ban street advertising. In place of 326 advertising signs, including 64 billboards, the French Alpine city has agreed to plant upwards of 50 trees, in keeping with its reputation as one of Europe’s most innovative cities and in response to falling billboard revenue. Echoing what others have said on this same point, a crackdown on advertising can inject character into a community, and bring economic growth, either through increased tourism or better consumer sentiment.

By deciding not to renew a long-running contract with JC Decaux, the city also forfeit €150,000 in advertising revenue, which, while significant, is significantly less than the €645,000 it earned in 2014 for the same contract. “It’s time to move forward in making Grenoble a more gentle and creative city”, said the city’s Green Party Mayor Eric Piolle. “We want a city which is less aggressive and less stressful to live in, that can carve out its own identity. Freeing Grenoble of advertising billboards is a step in this direction.”

Each of these cases has enjoyed widespread support and yielded largely positive results, be they better tourism numbers or community spaces, yet this isn’t to say that the case against billboards is without opposition. Far from it, the movement to uproot outdoor advertising has come up against stiff resistance, some with good intentions and others not so much.

A fair case?
Going back to São Paulo, there are some of the opinion that the money spent on the campaign – together with the money lost as a result – detracts from some of the city’s more prominent issues, and would’ve been better spent on alleviating citywide poverty for instance.

“I think this city is going to become a sadder, duller place”, said Dalton Silvanom, the only councilman to vote against the law and a native to the advertising business, in an interview with The New York Times. “Advertising is both an art form and, when you’re in your car or alone on foot, a form of entertainment that helps relieve solitude and boredom.” Silvanom’s comments echo those of the wider industry, and for this reason attempts to ban billboards have failed to get off the ground. Opposition to billboards is gathering momentum, this much is true, though it largely manifests in the form of grassroots uprisings and small-scale protestations.

In Paris vigilantes and artists have taken matters into their own hands, with one artist, Etienne Lavie, choosing to paint over ads under the hash tag #OMGwhostolemyads. Likewise, in New York a new app entitled No Ad allows users to replace ads with artwork using augmented reality technology through their mobile devices.

Unfortunately, many of the benefits OOH advertising brings have been obscured amid a mire of criticism. In São Paulo a rash of billboards was responsible for an excess of commercial clutter and a distinct lack of character, though it was also responsible for much-needed jobs and revenue. The fact remains that many communities rely on the income that outdoor advertising brings, and the transition to digital looks only to increase the benefits.

Digital transition
As can be seen in the case of Grenoble, outdoor advertising doesn’t come with the prestige it once did, and the proliferation of mobile channels has led many to question – wrongly perhaps–- the relevance of billboards in the digital age. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, OOH advertising revenue rose 3.8 percent in the second quarter of 2015 and accounted for $2.25bn overall. The results also show that all major out of home advertising categories are on the up, and the segment, alongside local radio, is the only traditional media channel to see “significant growth”. The figures here point to a reality distant from that of say São Paulo, Grenoble and a growing list of others where the segment is on the slide, and it appears that the opposition expressed by the public is at odds with the enthusiasm shared by brands.

PwC’s outlook for the sector also shows that in mature markets digital OOH revenue will replace physical. Revenue for the sector will reach $18.04bn in 2019, up from $9.71bn in 2014, and, should the company’s predictions prove accurate, at the expense of physical revenue – if only in mature markets. OOH is the “traditional advertising medium benefitting most from digitisation”, according to the report. “Digitisation has affected many traditional advertising media. For instance, global newspaper advertising revenue is set to decline at a CAGR of minus one percent over the next five years. Digitisation in OOH, however, has made a positive impact. By converting panels to digital, providers can vastly increase their revenue by displaying multiple ads of higher quality in the same space. This process will drive an impressive CAGR of 13.2 percent in DOOH advertising revenue.”

Aside from diversification, the digitisation of outdoor advertising allows brands to more closely engage with consumers, by integrating mobile and physical channels and by interacting with devices using technologies such as near-field communication. Though again, this development has not been without criticism. “Sadly, we can see that billboards are getting an upgrade – with digital billboards cropping up in cities around the world. This is a big step in the wrong direction”, said Assadourian. “Environmentally we’re talking about a new source of wasted electricity and resources to build these public advertising computers. And as these screens refresh, unlike paper billboards, they’re increasing digital clutter and total advertising exposure, helping to make the public even more into consumer zombies.”

So often positioned as a threat to traditional advertising and consumers both, the digitisation of OOH has actually done quite the opposite, in that the opportunities for brands have increased. “Technology and consumer behaviour is enhancing the power of the medium and as more people spend more time out and about, in an ever more connected way, OOH provides a wonderful way for advertisers to reach and engage with their audience”, said Brydon. “There is ongoing investment in digital OOH sites across the industry. With the rise of digital, the medium can now also enable time-specific and location-specific messages to be delivered, often prompting actions on consumers’ mobile devices in response to them. Classic posters still resonate with brilliant creative, delivering huge impact and memorable executions.”

According to McAlpin: “Using digital screens and technology, marketers can trigger tailored messages in the moment a consumer drives or walks past a structure. The dynamic capabilities coupled with the immediacy of the digital out-of-home medium offer endless possibilities for advertisers.”

Seen on the one side as a problem, businesses, on the other, see OOH advertising as an important means of getting more eyeballs on their brand. Fortunately, the transition to digital could mean the two reach a compromise, in that upgraded ads allow companies to be more responsive in how they position their brand, and may even allow them to directly address some of the concerns shared by the public.