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8/8/99 - Waste Of Space

The most basic step in any successful communications effort is making sure your intended audience receives your message.

Unfortunately, that seems to have been forgotten by some advertising practitioners whose "art for arts sake" approach takes precedence over any possible communications function.

Nowhere is this more evident than in today's billboard advertising. Consider, if you will, these two examples posted on the expressways around Chicago.

I can vouch that these two huge boards are illegible in gridlocked traffic, let alone at normal speeds. Even the black box at the bottom that presumably contains the name of the advertiser can't be read.

Passing motorists couldn't possibly have a clue about their content without peering through binoculars. In fact, for the sake of readability, the images you see here are larger than what would normally viewed from a car.

During the client presentation, the agency probably droned on about launching a campaign that reflected a thorough understanding of the audience with messages that were compelling and relevant. What they wound up producing couldn't be further from these lofty goals.

The rule of thumb for copy length for outdoor advertising is seven words or less. But the iconoclastic creators of these billboards choose to thumb their noses at that bit of advice. Likewise, the conventional wisdom that billboard copy should be able to be read out loud at a high speed in under eight seconds was obviously greeted with a "screw that" attitude.

Of course, who really wound up getting screwed was the client.

Not that they noticed. If their TV spots ran without sound or their print ads were published with smeared ink, you can bet they would have been outraged and demanded make goods. But apparently for the second string media, it's a case of out-of-home, out of mind.

It's obvious that these, like many of today's billboards, were magazine ads crammed into a different medium with no thought about how they would translate. Oh sure, they probably share some continuity with the look of the print campaign, but if the messages are indecipherable, so what?

Another synergistic selling point would have been the fact that there's an 800 number above the black logo box at the bottom, (I only know this because I saw it through a zoom lens). Realistically, do you think it generated any car phone calls? Do you think the creators of these billboards cared?

So, was this a betrayal of the client's confidence in their ad agency's creative judgment? No, the blame lies squarely on the client for their lack of confidence in their own visual acuity.

The only requirements necessary to determine these layouts would make ineffective billboards are two functioning eyeballs. (Even one would do.) Just reading a mockup of these boards across a desk would induce eyestrain.

Oh, in case you were wondering who approved these wastes of space, it was the State of Wisconsin (pity the poor taxpayers). Their purpose was to promote tourism, though you can rest assured these boards did absolutely nothing to churn up interest in the Dairy State.

These botched boards make you realize that contemporary advertising really hasn't come too far. In fact, thanks to the technology that makes it easy to mindlessly dump the elements of a print ad into a billboard format, it's regressed. And that's a pity, considering we're talking about a form of advertising whose history dates back to cave paintings.

Come to think of it, a Neanderthal could have made better use of the State of Wisconsin's billboard space. They just might have provided the missing link--communications.