Why most outdoor is a complete waste of money

During a workshop I conducted a few years ago, I put participants through the old ‘three second test’. That is, I showed examples of some outdoor ads that I had gathered on my travels around town, but only for three seconds at a time. Which is generally acknowledged as the time you supposedly have to get your message across to the average person on the move. I then asked participants to tell me what the ad had said.

Bearing in mind that these were executions featuring, in many cases, around twelve to fifteen messages per layout,, needless to say, nobody passed the test. In fact in most cases, I reckon even a World Champion Speed Reader would have struggled, frankly.  Such was the chaotic, unfathomable nature of most of the layouts sporting these messages.

But the important question is, what on earth was an ad featuring fifteen messages doing in an outdoor site? On an escalator panel, no less.

Clearly these were advertising executions assembled by, and approved and paid for by, people who hadn’t the faintest clue what the role of outdoor advertising is. Or how it’s supposed to work. (Which was the whole point of the workshop in the first place, which was I’m happy to say attended mostly by marketing people.)

Now I’m no Warren Buffet but you don’t need to have even an ounce of his financial acumen to have a grasp of how much money is being wasted here.

And the scary thing is, these executions were not the exception. They are everywhere. Cluttered, useless postings which often amount to no more than a Jamie Oliver fruit sundae masquerading as a bad leaflet stuck up on a wall in the bizarre notion that people are going to stop dead in their tracks for five minutes to have a read. “Excuse me, can you stop the escalator as I have just have to read about how the Lucky Gold Jewellery company summer promotion and I don’t care if I am late for my interview.”

I would actually love to be in the room when some of these monsters are being signed off on. I’d love to interview the perpetrators . Know what makes them tick. And ask them – ‘You wouldn’t waste money on a pen that doesn’t write, so why waste thousands of dollars on an ad that’s as useless as a perforated condom?’.

The sad reality is, in Hong Kong at least (although I wouldn’t be surprised if many other countries in Asia share the problem), the best of most outdoor executions are just the ones that are, at best, the least cluttered. (Let’s not even go near the word ‘idea’) Even more worrying, if you are a media owner, is that media owners are being held accountable. Outdoor, as with any medium, is measured on effectiveness. But if an advertisement is so incompetent in its general make up that it would fail even if it were the only thing you had to read while marooned on a desert island, it’s a tad unfair to blame the medium.

What on earth is going on? I asked this question of my class, and they were as clueless as I am. Even though many of them are actually paying for this stuff.

 So I’ll hazard a guess. Some of it could be because economy-minded clients who book their media directly, triumphantly attempt to save money on the ‘creative’ by getting their neighbour’s nephew with a knack for Photoshop to knock up a quick ‘design’, copy written and provided by – guess who?

That might explain the smaller sites, but how do you account for the consistently atrocious 48-sheet billboards that greet you at the cross-harbour tunnel entrance? Be honest, when was the last time you saw a good one?

The situation is very worrying.  As Julia Singleton pointed out in her MEC Sensor study report a few years ago  “The message must work with the medium and understand the consumer it is targeting in order to gain any noticeability.  I think we have passed the stage where plastering a giant logo, image and strapline will get your ad noticed.”

Frankly, from what I’ve reviewed recently, even that would be a start

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About Chris Kyme

Starting as a copywriter I've been in the creative business for longer than I am comfortable revealing. Let's just say I've been in Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) over 20 years. I've been fortunate to work with great people in agencies like Leo Burnett, Grey and Draft FCB (then just FCB). I've won awards here and there. But more importantly to me, I've built creative departments and grown young people who have gone on to enjoy fruitful creative careers. I still love what I do. I love the challenge of a nice fresh brief. And I love working for good clients who really get it.
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2 Responses to Why most outdoor is a complete waste of money

  1. Gigi says:

    Hey Chris, long time no see 🙂 I just found your site by chance!

    In Hong Kong there is a tendency for clients (even major MNCs) to splurge on media buy for exposure, without thinking through on creative, or even communications objectives. Ad agencies tell to up-sell clients on the shiniest toys while ignoring the core needs of clients. If you are free, let’s catch up for coffee sometimes, let me know if you’re free!

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