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Outdoor Cleverness – Meaningful?

Nationwide outdoor paint spill

I will be the first to admit that our concept of “meaningful marketing” is not an exact science. One of the main reasons we have launched this blog is to generate a conversation about what is meaningful and what is not. Clever outdoor advertising is one example that I go back and forth on.

I don’t mean the billboards that are plastered everywhere along the highways, on buses, and even on gas pumps and airline tray tables. For an outdoor ad to even have a chance to be effective marketing, it needs to grab your attention. I believe that to be meaningful, outdoor ads must both get your attention and reward it.

Take the example above for Nationwide. As part of its “Life Comes At You Fast” campaign, the brand took over a parking lot in Columbus, Ohio, and re-created a giant paint spill. This ad certainly grabs attention and I believe most people would say it made them smile at least once. As for marketing effectiveness, my bet is that it wins on both gaining attention and generating a positive feeling for Nationwide. In the highly competitive life insurance game, this small difference could mean a lot.

Here’s another example below for our hometown Cincinnati Cyclones hockey team. A few weeks ago I was walking out of a client’s office and saw this pile of snow on the corner during a 70-degree afternoon, with an advertisement to that evening’s playoff game. Again, it got my attention right away, and it got a smile as well. Heck, I even had a little sense of pride that our local team was in the finals and got out in the community to build some buzz. Plus, $1 beers is meaningful to a lot of us….

The downside to clever outdoor marketing is that it is by nature interruptive Рand by forcing everyone to look, they can piss off a hell of a lot of people. In the examples above, for every smile or snicker there may be another cry that these ads are polluting our landscape. Other horror stories abound. Target was taken down on NPR for its pair of ads that placed female legs between a four-lane freeway. Got Milk? ads on bus shelters that put out a cookie scent were pulled in San Francisco after one day. The A&E network was blasted for its ads in New York City that beamed a sound message directly into the skulls of passersby.  These are extreme cases, but sometimes even a company logo can be offensive.

So what’s a marketer to do? Tread carefully. I think the best advice comes from our friends at Millward Brown (full disclosure: a fellow WPP agency and we like them a lot). Dede Fitch, Global Analyst at MB, recommends that marketers ask themselves: “What are you giving your audience?” She suggests that we carefully consider length of exposure, intrusiveness, and viewer mood and mind-set.

At the end of the day, marketing with meaning overall, and the use of clever outdoor creative in particular, depend on marketers’ judgment. That’s why we get paid the big bucks.

UPDATE: I just learned that it is now legal for legal brothels in Nevada to advertise their services in Las Vegas. I guess this opens up an entirely new avenue for meaningful marketing….

6 Responses to “Outdoor Cleverness – Meaningful?”

  1. An interesting question Bob proposes here. I would have to say that some are Marketing with Meaning, while others clearly aren’t. Bob hits it right on that those that are inherently interruptive (i.e., you can’t NOT look) aren’t Marketing with Meaning. The creepy (on two levels) A&E ads fit the bill perfectly here.

    For many of these, I say that they provide a little pieces of entertainment when it’s not expected, so it adds a little meaning to people’s days.

    How about some more examples to help enhance the debate?

  2. Hey Bob,
    I just read about another example of marketing without meaning. Cable station TBS is so worried about people using DVRs to remove their commercials, they’ve resorted to using interstitial commercials. So you see someone walk onto the screen, pause the show, pitch another TV show, and then unpause and leave.

    Didn’t anyone think about how, if someone did that in real life, you would be automatically angry at them and uninterested in whatever they said?

    There’s a blog post with a video showing how this works here:

  3. Bob says:

    Hey, Jeff, you’re actually hitting on a future topic that I’ll hit later!

  4. Well…this one has to take the cake as far as outdoor advertising goes. Witness the world’s most dangerous and irresponsible outdoor ad ever. It’s a great day to be a marketer and be associated with the guys that came up with this.

  5. Bob says:

    That’s a new one, JR. I can see the marketing department guys now: “Have you looked at these charts? People are living longer! We’ve got to do something!”

  6. sandrar says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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