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Published on Page B2-1 of the March 24, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer)

IF NEW YORK has Times Square, home to one of the world's best and spectacular displays of billboards, Manila has the EDSA highway, at the boundary of the cities of Mandaluyong to Makati, with huge advertising visuals to earn the tag billboard avenue.



Early billboard forms

Billboards happen to be the world's oldest form of advertising. Signage was the earliest form of marketing communications, used by the first Egyptian merchants who chiseled sales and promotional messages on stone tablets, later posting them along public roads.

Millennia later, improvements in printing led to the evolution from hand-chiseled stone tablet signs to more aesthetically designed posters, originally called bills, in the 1800s.

Billboards were originally extensively used by circuses, whose owners invested heavily in advanced promotions. Many of the circus owners eventually became providers of billboards themselves.

In the 20th century, marketers began to use billboards as a major means to establish brand awareness. This was when outdoor advertising centers like Times Square and Hollywood's Sunset Strip came about, with spectacular displays by brand icons like Coke, Kelloggs, Levi's, Wrigley's, etc.

Times Square and Sunset Strip reign as the outdoor capitals of the world even today. Advertisers are not only encouraged to construct bigger and brighter displays in these areas but the City Planning Commission mandates it due to its tourism value.

The increasing number of billboard suppliers in the US led to the creation of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA).

In the Philippines, a self-regulatory body, the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines, was established in 1964 to help enforce public safety consciousness in the construction of outdoor signs and structures among member companies.

In more recent years, the billboard's role in creating awareness and purchase intent has been recognized. A number of factors have fueled this growth:

1. Dramatic increases in vehicle ownership and the increasingly mobile lifestyle of individuals.

2. Women migrating from in-home to out-of-home activities. Women as primary buying influencers in the past were easier to reach. This changed as more and more women began to work and marketers had to think of ways to reach them outside their homes.

3. The medium's capability to reach targeted consumers while they travel to their daily destinations.

4. The medium's flexibility to reach specific target markets around their lifestyle -- e.g., billboards mounted close to the workplace, homes and neighborhoods, shopping districts, schools, etc.

5. Technological improvements in the production of large format signs today do justice to the product or service features.

How effective are billboards?

A consumer perception study mounted by the Starcom Research in 2000 revealed the following:

1. Size and uniqueness of billboards drive memorability. Likewise, simple, concise messages in smaller billboard formats.

2. People like billboards that entertain.

3. People expect billboards to change every so often, specially for high-recognition brands.

4. The perception that everyone hates out-of-home advertising is unfounded.

5. Transit riders enjoy the entertainment and distraction of billboard messages more than rush hour traffic.

An FBCRS survey on usage, attitude and image, conducted in 2003, complemented the Starcom research. The findings revealed:

1. A billboard's unique design is an attribute that drives awareness and recall of advertising.

2. Use of bright, cheerful colors is preferred.

3. People like billboards in general as revealed by 96 percent of the respondents who gave overall positive comments.

Successful billboard attributes

While billboards are enjoying a surge in media usage, marketers are challenged to present their billboards in ways that rise above the clutter. Some of the attributes that marketers can look into include the following as culled from a 2000 Sensory Logic Creative Test mounted in late 2000:

1. Stopping power. Successful billboards must have excellent stopping power. These include among others, the use of strong color contrasts between foreground and background elements; use of colors with deep saturation; avoidance of cluttered or very austere formats and use of a story line with dramatic tension or suspense to engage viewer interest.

2. Readability. These include making the picture image big, alive and simple; making the message clear; developing copy that is short yet full of punch and creating a seamless design with simple and clear texts and fonts.

3. Message clarity. Avoiding excessive brain teasing, ability to relate messages to familiar experiences and situations and emphasis on the product as hero or helper are dimensions of message clarity.

4. Memorability. These include the use of a powerful anchor visual element and images that hinge on real-life experiences.

Where to, billboards?

Technology, highly targeted markets, new and emergent lifestyles are likely to lead to newer, more exciting billboards and out of home formats. Some exciting executions include beautifully designed wall murals and building shrink-wraps, live billboards, storefront scaffoldings and street furniture, among others.

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