Thursday, July 6, 2006

Larger than Life

Can’t shut ‘em off with a TV remote, can’t flip ‘em away like a mag, can’t change their channel like in a radio...Billboards are the most radical medium for advertisements today

While Madonna cooed, “Don’t cry for me Argentina,” as she played the role of Evita Peron, many on the Indian roads banged their cars into each other as they gazed wide-eyed at the hoardings of Evita soap and gasped, “Who’s that girl?”

So while Madonna’s song notched up to number 2 on the Billboards, a different success story was up on the billboards in India. As Lisa Ray looked down at passers-by from the huge billboards advertising Godrej’s Evita soap, commuters couldn’t take their eyes off her and soon, everyone wanted to know all about her and the soap, making both of them popular overnight.

Clearly, billboards can create a lot of impact if handled properly. They have proved their effectiveness time and again. Be it in UK, where The Economist has been using them for over 14 years, or be it India where Amul has been using them for decades to promote their products.


If the movie “Cars” has once again got the cash registers rolling for Disney-Pixar animation studios, then those are cars that have once again sparked off a huge interest in billboards and the outdoors as a medium of advertising. Billboards are fast becoming a medium irresistible to advertisers and media planners. Definitely, those are the super highways and high speed cars that are responsible for the comeback of good old fashioned outdoor advertising. More and more people are on the roads, making the ‘viewership’ of this medium larger and larger day by day. All this while, billboards and hoardings had been playing second fiddle to the king of media – Television. Now all of a sudden, there is a twist in the tale and outdoors has become a powerful tool to reach out to customers.

“Speak up: It’s in your DNA!”

Hoardings in Mumbai urged people to speak their mind up and also made them curious. People wondered and waited, “What was it all about?” It was the run-up to the launch of the Zee-Bhaskar newspaper named DNA (Daily News and Analysis), which used outdoor advertising almost exclusively for spreading its launch message across Mumbai. People started talking about it. So much so that the Times Group was tempted to copy the ad-campaign to promote their newspaper Maharashtra Times. While the original DNA hoardings showed faces of people with their mouths pasted over by grey tape and below that ran the tagline: “Speak up: It’s in your DNA,” the Maharashtra Times, in its newspaper pages, showed people peeling grey tapes off their mouth, and the tagline went like this: “Speak up, its in your DNA – Maharashtra Times.” Of course, the ads proved a little expensive for Times, as Zee immediately slapped a Rs.100 crore lawsuit. However, our point is proved – billboards work. Billboards are an excellent way to reach a large audience. No wonder Reliance Infocomm, Hutch, Tata Indicom are all fighting it out in the “open,” using outdoors to attract consumers.

When the New Zealand Listener Magazine wanted to attract young readers, it designed an innovative billboard campaign. Using the website, young readers were encouraged to sort out, arrange and place various news, events and issues under four heads, that is, topical, interesting, tedious or dated. Every week, the magazine showcased the results on billboards. The magazine realised how billboards were a vital medium to make this strategy work. Without doubt, innovation is the key to success, when it comes to outdoor advertising; and Unilever has done it again – this time out in the open – on the streets of New York City! It has made a “Dirty Clothes Bus” that has caught the attention of all. What’s this bus for? It’s an advertisement for a detergent. The caption on the bus reads, “How much can one small bottle clean?” and the bus itself is covered with dirty clothes. For the first time, someone got the desired stares with clothes on, than off!

London has a favorite jumping point for would-be suicide planners. Just opposite this point, a wise guy put up a hording which read, “Before you jump, give us a call.” It was actually an advertisement for a job site! Simply too good, or should I say simple and good? Yes, outdoors is a medium where you have to KISS your way into the hearts of consumers. Keep it short and simple, and it will rock! The outdoors is where all the action lies today. According to a survey done in US, 78% of advertisers thought that today, traditional television commercials had become less effective. In summary, everyone prefers taking their goods outdoors.

An artist, frustrated by the current American President’s administration, made a small painting, which apparently looked like George Bush’s face. But on close inspection, it was actually made of monkey heads in marshes. When the art gallery refused to display it, some anonymous donors picked it up and projected it on a giant billboard in Manhattan. They knew 400,000 car owners daily would see the painting projection and form their opinions about the futile war Bush is fighting in Iraq. The billboard was such a hit that bidding for the painting by the little known artist has already touched $4,000!

Billboards offer endless creative possibilities. No wonder, Coca-Cola is taking on Pepsi full throttle in the outdoors. It’s going all out to promote its new beverage Coca-Cola BlaK with its new slogan – “The Coke side of life”; and hoardings will be its primary medium. Not long before, Pepsi too went outdoors to woo people with a kick and a kiss. While Priyanka Chopra offered the kick of coffee, Kareena Kapoor promised the kiss of cola, as Pepsi launched its Pepsi Cafe Chino flavour. Buses were painted and dressed up and had these two beautiful girls promising a kick and a kiss to youngsters. They did arouse a lot of interest; however, it was more kick than kiss for Pepsi as the product’s taste did not go down well with consumers!

Even the traditional London cab has today turned into a very popular vehicle for outdoor promotion. It has become a medium for reaching mass audiences. New product launches, brand building exercises et al are all being done through taxis! Be it Coca-Cola, or Gillette, or Haagen Dazs, all have used taxis to “drive home” the message to customers.


Technology has been largely responsible for the rebirth of this medium. Billboards are no more those wooden boards that took so long to paint and were so quick to fade. Today, you can download music, play games, watch videos, design your own sneakers, and even purchase them – all directly from the billboard.

In New York City’s Times Square, Walt Disney World has a billboard advertising its theme park. You can send a text message to the number displayed, and within seconds, you receive an SMS supporting your query, and even asking whether you would want to receive further promotional messages. In fact, one of the longest billboards in the world – 100 feet wide – belongs to Coca Cola. It’s placed in London’s Piccadilly Circus. Being amongst the largest is not its only claim to fame. The billboard astoundingly changes with the weather too. So if it’s rainy, the billboard displays rain drops; if it’s windy, it displays ripples; but more than this, if you wave at the billboard, most astoundingly, it waves back! Another product, Absolut Vodka, has rock star Lenny Kravitz on its Manhattan billboard, inviting passers by to turn on the Bluetooth connectivity on their mobiles to download a free four minute MP3 track, while they wait for the street light to turn green!


Supporting the shift, big advertisers and popular brand names are today putting their faith and money on billboards. The Independent used only posters for promoting its newspaper, and sales increased dramatically by 9%. British fashion label FCUK (French Connection United Kingdom) built its brand only with the help of billboards. When Smirnoff wanted to improve its sales in New Zealand, it used the word “OFF” in different innovative ways and plastered it on hoardings all over New Zealand. It used simple one-liners like, ‘Pressure OFF’, ‘Dance your ass OFF’, ‘The half day OFF’. The term “OFF” was from the Smirn”off” bottle, placed in such a way that only the “off” part was visible. So for any kind of an ‘off’, it had to be Smirnoff. Dramatically, the sales of the vodka increased by 35%.

When India wanted to attract tourists, it took its hoardings of “Incredible India” straight into Times Square, New York. They wanted to showcase India as the ideal destination for Yoga, Ayurveda etc., but wanted those tourists who were willing to pay. For this, they had to make India look irresistible. The most effective and fastest way was through billboards.


The rules of the game have changed. It’s a whole new world out there, full of innovations and limitless possibilities. Billboards are far from boring. They can be so much fun today and so creative. The medium itself is so unique. Unlike television ads, one cannot zap billboards into oblivion with one’s remote; unlike in a magazine, one cannot turn pages and miss the ad; unlike radio, one cannot turn a billboard off! If you are on the road, you are bound to notice it. Whether it creates an impact or not depends on its creativity. The billboard is a huge canvass, which gives the company a chance to make a brand look larger than life. The billboard gives that power in your hands. The best part is, all this comes at a fraction of cost. Billboards cost three times less than newspapers, half as much as radio, and seven times less than television. Outdoors, without doubt, is one of the most powerful marketing tools.


While you are busy rooting for your favourite team during the FIFA World Cup, don’t forget the billboards lined up alongside the stadium. They are a great way to promote brands and products. After all, all of them did shell out $45 million to $50 million to be present inside the football grounds. Interestingly, the city of Frankfurt is turning itself into a huge billboard for FIFA. The road from the Munich airport to the World Cup stadium has a huge cut-out of the German national football team goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. The city is using billboards to project itself as a hospitable, sport-loving, cosmopolitan city. Be it Leipzig or Munich or Hamburg, all of them together are posting their passions on billboards, welcoming the players, the tourists and the game. Those are the billboards that have turned Germany into a large playground and taken the football fever to dizzying heights. Billboards have been building up the tempo much before the advent of the Cup. Nike was seen rooting for the underdog USA with the help of a giant billboard on 7th Avenue in New York City. First, a hoarding went up which read, “The World No Longer Wants To Play Us.” Then the 70 foot billboard was changed to “BEWARE,” showing the American footballers ready to take on the match. The message was designed to give soccer fans a rallying cry. Even Coca-Cola had dedicated two of its billboards inside the stadium to its fans. Fans of the teams playing a particular match were allowed to create art works – on the billboards – that would convey a sense of national pride and enthusiasm. What was earlier reserved for the sponsor’s name and logo, had now been changed into a work of art by Coca-Cola for the 2006 World Cup. The dazzling billboards, the vibrant colors, the numerous messages emblazoned on numerous billboards – these posters changed the whole environment of the country.

Indisputably, and undeniably, when you want to make it large, you’ve got to take your message to the big stage – the outdoors. If you want to create an impact, beat competitors, you’ve got to make it larger than life!

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