Drugi jezik na kojem je dostupan ovaj članak: Bosnian
By: Bor Klemenc Mencin, The Young Leader for Tomorrow
If you consider yourself a true ad man, you have to respect it. Yet one cannot help but question what the future has in store for it. With the rise of ever more sophisticated types of targeted advertising penetrating our day-to-day, some of us are starting to wonder whether the billboard’s days are numbered. How is the classic billboard, inherently unable to provide any sort of meaningful customer engagement or consumer targeting and with no means of providing any type of useful feedback data to the advertiser, able to compete with a precisely targeted social media post that is engaging, timely and costing next to nothing, all at the same time?
For now at least, the billboard remains alive and well. Better than well, even. Somehow, in *The Great Age of Digital*, the billboard business seems to be thriving. You can find them everywhere be it a city, a town, a suburb, a freeway, an urban artery or a remote access road. Advertising spaces are popping up in the most random of places – on the sides of apartment buildings, atop of skyscrapers or (increasingly) harbouring those forever idle construction sites. By covering every surface imaginable, billboards and other outdoor mediums have become part of our everyday. So much part of our everyday, in fact, that some argue we (or rather, our brains) no longer fall prey to their enticements.
The central residents of Zagreb (left) and Belgrade (right).
Copyright: Anić Holding Plus d.o.o. & Teča sa Dunava
In my experience, when talking about outdoor advertising, people either hate it or ignore it. If they don’t fall into any of the above mentioned categories they’re either working in advertising or there’s something seriously off about them. I have a sort of bipolar attitude towards outdoor. On the one hand I respect it and have deep admiration for it when it’s done right. On the other hand most of the time I cannot help but cringe (or at most yawn) at the work. My point is: I can understand the frustration of the people who think billboards are s*** and as with many things in advertising, I believe content and aesthetics are a major issue when it comes to outdoor. But for me the real (or rather, greater) problem of outdoor isn’t quality, it’s quantity. It’s oversaturation.
Let’s play a game. Next time you walk around any major city – from New York to Moscow, Stockholm to Cape Town (Sao Paulo and Grenoble excluded) – try to pay attention and spot the numerous billboards, rolling boards, digital screens, wallscapes, metrolights, posters or roto panels staring at you at every turn. A couple of minutes into the game, your initial fascination might give way to a strange, eerie feeling. For me it’s something like walking inside John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic They Live. They are weaved into the urban fabric as architects and city planners are forced to incorporate them into their designs. In major cities across the globe, They hang from the facades of cultural and religious monuments under repair or in the process of restoration. Even in Slovenia, They are placed on traditional hayracks (kozolci), that are supposed to be under protection as an important part of the country’s cultural heritage. And it looks as though They’re here to stay.
They Live (John Carpenter, 1988).
Copyright: Universal Pictures
Billboards uncompromisingly change the character of the space they occupy and usually not in a positive way – for example, in the case of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade or Sarajevo billboards don’t have a function of enhancing the city’s identity such as in the case of New York and Tokio. I can see how covering a monument of national importance with billboards, even if the advertiser is sponsoring the renovation, can offend someone. I can understand someone saying outdoor advertising companies are ruining the charm of their city: if a tourist, let’s say, was to take a stroll through Ljubljana just a few days after the recent reopening of the re-modernized city centre, one couldn’t blame him for mistakenly thinking he’s walking over a stretch of the McDonald’s Promenade (see photo) and not Slovenska Street (Ljubljana’s main central artery). I truly believe people would be less critical of outdoor if they weren’t exposed to it practically everywhere they go. And it’s not just a matter of context and aesthetics. I believe it’s also a matter of feasibility and utility. There’s this thing called Miller’s law named after the famous cognitive psychologist George Miller.
The recently reopened Slovenska Street, Ljubljana.
Copyright: EUROPLAKAT d.o.o.
In 1956 Miller published a paper entitled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. It is often interpreted to argue that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2, measured in chunks of information such as words or digits. If there are too many chunks of information to process, the person will simply perceive them as pollution. So let’s say advertisers design billboards that feature 3-5 chunks of information on average (e.g. headline, visual motive, product, name, slogan). Now, that’s all good and well. But, when you think about it, really few billboards stand on their own. Usually they’re put up in clusters of 2-3 or more. So how much information can a person driving past 3 or more billboards with 3-5 chunks of info each, having to keep one eye on the road, really process? There’s no doubt outdoor advertising company representatives would disagree with me and I admit I’m no cognitive psychologist but maybe the answer to the question is not what the majority of advertisers would like to hear…
Martin Lindstrom says our brains are adept at filtering out irrelevant information. Yet somehow this unconscious process of filtering occupies our brains – even if we consciously choose to ignore something, our brain keeps paying attention. Outdoor advertising companies could argue: “Billboards aren’t there to persuade you to do anything. Research shows that most people don’t even look at billboards for more than 4 seconds, those that do look for more than that, don’t look much longer. Outdoor billboards are about building brands, and strengthening images.” (And some of us may quietly reply: “Tell that to our clients.”) But how much is enough? Is there a limit? When does outdoor loose whatever brand strengthening effect it may have and becomes plain visual pollution or an imperceptible, “natural” part of the backdrop? Personally I think we’re way past that point in time.
Billboards greet visitors upon entering Belgrade (above) and Zagreb (below).
Copyright: Teča sa Dunava & Anić Holding Plus d.o.o.
To be clear: I’m not trying to put the blame on the outdoor companies. At least not entirely. Their livelihood depends on advertisers (indirectly, of course, as middlemen are plentiful). I think outdoor advertising companies are aware of the drawbacks that operating with too much ad space can bring. In recent years some of the biggest players in the outdoor biz have begun taking down traditional billboards and replacing them with rotating ones as one way of toning down the volume of advertising spaces. Serious outdoor advertising companies try to combat pollution by employing renowned architects to design advertising infrastructure that would have more aesthetic appeal to the consumers and stand out at the same time. And I’m not saying outdoor advertising doesn’t work. I’m saying that today’s situation is mostly a never-ending, vicious and bloated lose-lose-lose cycle where: advertisers probably don’t really get what they pay for and, as a result, purchase more and more ad space in their attempt to stand out from the competition; outdoor companies are forced to invest more and more of their resources into increasingly intrusive and pervasive mediums; consumers are increasingly worn-out and annoyed by the spread of outdoor ads competing for their attention at every turn. That being said, I do believe outdoor mediums play and will inevitably play an important role in the years to come. But the question is still looming: how much is enough? And what can be done about it?
A complete ban on outdoor isn’t a viable option (as residents of Sao Paulo recently found out) due to outdoor companies’ long standing and beneficial relationship with municipalities. Nor would it be fair to punish everybody for the faults of the few. However, eventually some sort of regulation will have to be implemented to curb this frenzy. Most cities already have rules set up for these things. Trouble is, they are systematically disobeyed and the violations usually go unpunished. But maybe the tides have begun to turn: the city of Ljubljana recently announced the tearing down of 4000 illegal billboards and other simple objects across the city. Some argue actions like these are political and are made solely to strengthen the foothold of the bigger outdoor companies who can afford to operate according to the city’s rules. I have no doubt that in the future the question will be how to level the playing field for smaller ad space providers, but for now this seems to at least be a step in the right direction. But even enforcing the rules may not be enough to change the public’s attitude towards outdoor.
In the future I would like to see the outdoor industry innovate itself from within. And I’m not talking about creating new mediums solely to serve commercial interests. Of course such innovations are inevitable. What I mean is (also) innovating the service for the benefit of the public. I’m talking about possibly funding and running a social awareness campaign for every 3 major commercial campaigns. I’m talking about occasionally letting Anica, Jure and Tjaša advertise their hair-salon, pizza-parlour and second-hand shop in their local area. I’m talking about potentially renting the premium locations exclusively to cultural institutions to boost attendance at social events happening around the city. Or supporting the city’s young and up-and-coming artists by using those locations to showcase their art. Outdoor has to get people on its side. Call me idealist or naive, but I believe that if this industry is to have a bright future, it will have to become more open and democratic and it will have to learn to say no (or at least “take it easy”) when commercial interests start doing more harm than good.
What would happen if outdoor companies would start turning more toward the public and less toward commercial interests?