Over the Thanksgiving Holiday I traveled with my family from central Tennessee to Michigan's northern lower peninsula and back. We drove over 1500 miles of interstate and saw a lot of billboards. After seeing this billboard for Tattoo Charlies along I65 just south of Louisville,(of course the tattoos are done while you wait) I decided to photograph and evaluate outdoor advertising the rest of the way. Our trip became a sort of outdoor advertising critic broken up by a turkey dinner intermission.
As we studied hundreds of billboards, we began to notice the characteristics separating the good from the bad. Conveniently, those five qualities form an acrostic from the word D-R-I-V-E: Direct, Relevant, Immediate, Vivid, and Easy.
Direct: The best billboards focused on a single message and delivered it with very few words. They were punchy with large, easy-to-read type and the only billboards that could actually communicate with distracted drivers passing at 75 mph.
Cracker Barrel's said, "Breakfast All Day." Great. Kudos to Jeffrey Buntin and the Buntin Group, Cracker Barrel's Nashville ad agency for getting it right. (Coincidentally, Cracker Barrel announced today it will update all of its outdoor advertising. Can't wait to see the new ones.)
The Chase bank billboards around Indianapolis were perhaps the best example. They promoted new faster ATM machines. The headline read, "Gt $ fstr." Awesome. Two abbreviated words and a symbol. Not only did I understand its message immediately, but the execution reinforced the meaning as well. The bank's ATM's are fast and its billboards are too!
Relevant: Advertising is either relevant or invisible. We noticed billboards for gas stations when we were low on fuel and restaurants when we were hungry. If we had spent a night on the road we would have noticed the hotel ads too. Travelers need fuel, food, and lodging.
However I didn't understand signs for cancer centers or even car insurance. People driving the interstate already have car insurance. To reach people who need it but haven't yet bought, they might have worked with dealerships that sell the cars or the banks that finance them to put their auto insurance message in front of customers just as they need it. Or, how about direct mail that promotes auto insurance discounts timed to arrive as people are getting their bill? Better to reach people needing cancer treatment through the diagnosing doctor than a highway billboard.
Immediate: Advertising gets more effective as you shorten the distance between exposure to the ad and the consumer's ability to act. One Cracker Barrel sign said, "Next Exit. Right." I could immediately act on the impulse it created. Much better than the billboards for colleges my son wouldn't need for another five years.
Vivid: Bright and bold stood out from rural backgrounds. Yellow on black seemed to work best. Like this billboard for Johnny Walker. Though, apart from its colors, I don't recommend this billboard. It's design was confusing and it's type too small. It may cause a multi-car pile-up more easily than a sales increase as people try to figure it out.
Bright colors worked well, but limit your pallet to two or three at most. Signs with multiple bright colors were confusing.
Easy: Make your billboard easy to read. Use large, legible type. Use solid backgrounds with sharply contrasting type. Orient your type horizontally. It's easier to read. Line breaks add time and effort. This billboard for giving blood is direct and had a clever three dimensional design, but was too difficult to read and understand. The type on the blood bag is vertical. The type on the right hand side is way too small.
If you D-R-I-V-E your billboard, your billboard may just drive sales. Spread the fire. GS