Billboard boycott – let’s start with B2B billboard ads

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Doug Kessler

21. 11. 2011 | 3 min read

Billboard boycott – let’s start with B2B billboard ads

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Having spent my entire career in marketing, I’m hardly an anti-capitalist. But there is one form of advertising that I’d happily see banned tomorrow: billboards.

The multi-billion dollar outdoor advertising industry is built on a premise that all marketers should reject: that it’s okay to sell people’s eyeballs without their consent or benefit.

As a consumer, you can opt out of online spam (or at least filter it into your junk folder), but none of us can opt out of the worst spam of all, the visual spam that spoils our cities and turns our environment into a shrill marketplace. — the spam pumped into our eyes by Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor and the other outdoor advertising giants.

Drive through any city and count the billboard ads. You can’t do it. There are far too many. We’ve grown so used to them that we think all cities and towns have to look like this. But they don’t. We can easily get rid of billboard ads.

Back in 2007, Sao Paolo, the world’s seventh largest city, banned outdoor advertising as part of its Clean City Law. There was a massive howl from the outdoor advertising industry – especially from Clear Channel – but the sky didn’t fall, it emerged from behind the billboards.

“The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution,” said Sao Paolo Mayor Gilberto Kassab, “pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution.”

And ‘visual pollution’ is as good a definition of billboard ads that I can think of.

It’s hard to say what Sao Paolo will look like when all the emtpy billboard structures are removed but the residents are starting to see a new city — and 70% of them support the ban on outdoor advertising. (Check out Tony de Marco’s flickr photostream of the emtpy billboard dinosaurs)

Following Sao Paolo’s lead, San Francisco, Seattle and dozens of other American cities have started to experiment with some sensible limitations on all new billboards. Again, Clear Channel and the outdoor advertising industry are lobbying hard to fight the trend (“Outdoor advertising is culture!”). But as people start to see how nice their cities can be without 50-foot Big Macs and Bruce Willis billboards at every intersection, the tide could turn.

As you’d expect, McDonalds is the world’s biggest outdoor advertiser. The billboards they post in two years could wrap the world — as indeed they do. (Much as I like a quarter-pounder with cheese, I’ve half a mind to boycott McDonalds until they stop their assault by billboards).

Can the B2B market do anything about the blight of outdoor advertising? A lot. And it wouldn’t hurt much — outdoor is probably the least efficient of all B2B media (it’s better for burgers). Even billboards outside of convention centres during big trade shows are still 90+% waste. It may be a ‘clear channel’ but it’s the worst B2B channel of all.

Here’s an idea: the next time you see outdoor advertising in a marketing plan, suggest cancelling it and doing more content marketing or SEO. The return on investment will go up and you’ll have done something tangible in the fight against billboards, Clear Channel and the outdoor advertising industry.

You’ll also have done something positive for your neighbours.

What do you think?

Am I missing some hidden benefit that billboard ads deliver?

Am I being unfair to Clear Channel or McDonalds?

Is the outdoor advertising industry worth protecting?

Or are you just a fan of billboards?





Photo: Tony de Marco

Published in:

  • b2b-marketing

  • billboards

  • outdoor advertising

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  1. Atul Dhakappa

    November 28th, 2011

    I like the concept of visual pollution and the impact that we can generate, if we can get rid of it. However it all depends on the target market to which you are trying to sell to. In several cases, the target market is not found online (like the SME segment in India for example), so companies end up using billboards, radio based advertising, SMS marketing and even outbound calling. Several of these are not used extensively in US/EU geographies.

  2. Doug Kessler

    November 28th, 2011

    Thanks, Atul.

    I can see it might be more difficult in some markets to remove outdoor advertising altogether. And maybe it’s an unachievable dream here, too.
    But I just don’t think we should give landowners or building owners the right to sell the attention of the entire community without consent.

  3. Waid

    December 1st, 2011

    What is needed is a consumer boycott against billboard advertisers — “Boycott Billboard Advertisers”. Hitting the actual advertisers who are buying billboard time directly in their sales is the most powerful way to make an impact.

  4. Doug Kessler

    December 2nd, 2011

    Great idea.

    I wonder how to get groundswell…?

  5. Stuart Rothwell

    December 2nd, 2011

    I am currently in Sao Paulo. Been walking around this city for two days.
    It is massive, way too tall, no sky. All brown, grey, no splash of colour. It is a drab city.
    Pretty much all the blank hoardings have been removed.

    Now this is not an opinion that is going to sit well.
    But a McDonalds ad, with it’s tomatoes, lettuce, buns may go some way to brighten the city up.

    Visual pollution seems like a minor blight.
    Sao Paulo, as with any large city, has a high homeless count.
    Is there a way for the advertising to aid the community?

    One other point, Sao Paulo is not advertising free. Street level advertising is prevalent. Also, when travelling into the city, the billboards are everywhere.
    Has Clear Channel simply moved the messages?

  6. Doug Kessler

    December 4th, 2011

    Well if a picture of a hamburger is the only way to brighten a drab city, we’re all in trouble.

    I do agree that visual pollution is unlikely to be the biggest problem facing our cities. But it feels solvable with very little effort: just withdraw the permission that should never have been given.

    Sao Paolo is a metaphor for every city: dark problems lurking behind bright slogans.

  7. Chuck Abrams

    December 22nd, 2011

    Visual pollution aside, good billboards are just as valid a medium as any other marketing tool. The fact that most of them are crap is not the billboards fault. Most TV commercials are crap too. And you really can’t opt out of the TV medium or the persistent web banner — those things pop up when you don’t want them. TV ads are running on nearly every channel and they are often synced in time so switching channels gets you more TV commercials — sometimes even the same one.

    So decry the visual pollution all you want. Our TVs and computers are full of visual pollution. Our radios are full of noise pollution. It isn’t the medium, it is the poor creative use of the medium that bothers me more.

  8. Doug Kessler

    January 3rd, 2012

    Agreed: crap creative is offensive in all media.

    But even good creative can be a blight on a landscape or streetscape.
    Apparently Vermont has had a ban on outdoor advertising for a few years now and it’s really popular.

  9. Patrick Schierholz

    January 29th, 2012

    Hello Doug,
    reading your subject I got fooled a little. I basically share your concerns. Too many outdoor-ads are visual pollution indeed. I very often had the exact feeling in many areas of the world when facing a flood of posters and billboards at just one average corner. In Vienna – where I live – it is under a certain control and good creative at good sites often please me.

    The subject of this discussion – “should B2B creatives refuse billboard ads?” is a bit misleading. Classic business-to-business activities – to my understanding – are created to do just what the name says: From one business to another business in all forms of advertising allowing direct contact. We just broke this rule – in a extremely successful way.
    An Austrian machinery company manufacturing high tech cutting machines mainly for the automobile industry and Tier 1 suppliers assigned us a year ago. Their target group has names like Volkswagen or Mercedes, Audi or BMW, Jaguar or Porsche. And also ZF or Nemak.
    The assignment is a complex marketing job – and naturally B2B. Our idea to handle B2B: We know where our customers are at home! We stick huge messages right under their noses. The first “campaign” for Volkswagen in Mexico happened on huge billboards along motorways from the center of Puebla and the airport to the Volkswagen plant. A simple single message in German. Because we only wanted to talk to four or five key managers – all German. The people at Volkswagen were most amused and half of Puebla guessed, what that German message means. In Monterrey we did a campaign for Nemak. In Spanish this time. Both Volkswafgen and Nemak contacted our client to compliment on an outstanding idea and a very creative approach. Serious business talks and invitation followed soon. Shortly after we presented billboards along the Neckar Valley near Stuttgart – locations of a couple of Mercedes plants. The billboards attracted first talks leading to a big deal. Mercedes ordered a couple of machines. The follow up campaign said: “We were just awarded with a star. Thank you.”
    The present campaign in Michigan and Indiana is addressed to Chrysler – and we already have nice feedback.
    To make a final point: B2B with outdoor advertising sounds absurd for most B2B experts. But we can proof or client never before conducted a B2B campaign being that successful. We should not refuse billboards. We should use them wisely.

  10. Doug Kessler

    January 30th, 2012

    Thanks Patrick.

    Your campaign sounds like it was really effective.

    I do agree that outdoor can be used well in B2B — from a pure business perspective.

    My objection is more a moral one.
    Just because we CAN run effective campaigns and make money by polluting the visual environment, it doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

    Judging by the client’s ROI alone, outdoor will often play a role in a B2B marketing plan (though a lot less often than B2C).

    Judging by something bigger… I’m still against them!

  11. Outdoor marketing

    March 31st, 2016

    That is a good way to concentrate outdoor marketing and put on some limits, I agree with you, billboards are so big and messy, ads need to be entertaining not boring space takers.

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