Howard Gossage was not a fan of billboards.
He railed against them for a variety of reasons, but at the core of his argument was essentially the fact that they provide no value. Other media, he argued, existed to deliver some kind of value to the consumer – in the form of content, information, and entertainment. The advertising that rode alongside is simply the price a consumer pays for choosing to view the content.
Billboards, on the other hand, don’t bring other content to the party. They’re just there, cluttering up the environment and subsidizing nothing. He went so far as to call them an invasion of privacy.
I remember reading some of his criticism a while back in Bruce Bendinger’s excellent compilation, “The Book of Gossage.” I recently rediscovered Gossage’s anti-billboard point of view while doing some research for an upcoming presentation.
It made me wonder what ol’ Howard would think about the out-of-home (OOH) advertising industry today.
The OOH ecosystem is rapidly adopting digital – ranging from digitized versions of large-format billboards that dot roadsides across the country to smaller screens popping up in all manner of venues – and lots of stuff in between. Digital screens bring dynamic content, real-time (or near-real-time) connectivity to Web content, and video capabilities. It turns the static poster into a lively screen bound to draw attention.
But the question remains: would digital be enough to save OOH in Howard’s eyes?
If you consider his primary objection as I’ve outlined it here – that OOH isn’t really an advertising medium because it provides no value exchange with the consumer – then perhaps there is hope.
The smaller screens typically display much more than advertising. In some venues, it might be live television. On screens in other venues might appear video content like localized weather reports, the latest celebrity gossip, news and important headlines, and so on. I’ve said it many times before: the key to the success of this new class of digital out-of-home (DOOH) screens is to attract the attention of consumers by providing valuable content.
That doesn’t have to mean high-dollar video productions.
It seems that thousands of hours of content is posted to the Internet every few minutes. Loads of it is utter crap. But some of it is really, really good. And as social media continues its meteoric rise, it seems to be enabling the production and aggregation of all manner of content (photos, videos, status updates, tweets, check-ins, etc.) that can all be made compelling, engaging, and relevant with some smart technology or skilled curation, or a combination of the two. For example, what if your local coffee shop displayed information from Foursquare – including recent check-ins, the mayor, any deals or offers, and user-submitted tips? Maybe it could even combine that with localized Twitter content. Sure, you can get all that information via the app on your phone (if you have it), but seeing it on a big screen in the venue is just cool. It broadcasts the engaging content previously limited to a tiny, private screen.
It could be taken a step further by layering in games that could be played via mobile phone. Casual games have exploded on the social Web. Imagine some of that competitiveness coming out in your local coffee shop as people around the room play together via their phones. Digital has long been criticized for reducing real-world personal interaction. Maybe – just maybe – this kind of content could help reverse that by actually enhancing and creating opportunities for analog social interaction. I dare say that would be of some value. Companies like LocaModa and Megaphone are already enabling these kinds of interactions to be delivered to screens.
And even the big screens – the digital billboards – which don’t often show video, are connected, which means that they can provide information like traffic updates, weather reports, localized information like what song is currently playing on a particular radio station, and so on. Given those capabilities, surely a smart marketer can find a way to wrap their advertisement around smart and compelling content.
We’ll never know if these digital capabilities would have changed Howard’s mind on OOH advertising. But it certainly does seem to bring a more compelling value exchange to the consumer. And one thing is for sure: it is opening up all manner of new possibilities for modern-day marketers.