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Journal of Advertising
| December 22, 2006 | Taylor, Charles R.; Franke, George R.; Bang, Hae-Kyong

Recent years have seen growth in outdoor advertising revenues. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, annual revenues were $2.8 billion in 1993; over the following 10 years, expenditures almost doubled, increasing to $5.5 billion in 2003. This rise has occurred in spite of the loss of cigarette advertising on billboards due to the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 and a decline in the relative proportion of billboards for alcoholic beverages (OAAA 2004). In recent years, a broader range of product categories has been advertised on billboards, led by a variety of retail and service businesses. Zenith Optimedia classifies outdoor advertising as a "major medium," along with television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and cinema. Zenith Optimedia projects continued growth in outdoor advertising expenditures, and ranks outdoor as the fifth largest advertising medium worldwide, behind only television, newspapers, magazines, and radio (Zenith Optimedia 2005). Despite revenue growth, however, outdoor advertising remains "one of the least researched of any mass medium" (Katz 2003, p. 92). Even among the limited number of studies that have been conducted, few have focused on what factors drive its effectiveness (Donthu, Cherian, and Bhargava 1993).

The growth of outdoor advertising has included a considerable increase in the use of nontraditional formats, including street furniture (e.g., bus shelters, kiosks), alternative media (e.g., arenas and stadiums, airborne, marine), and transit (e.g., buses, airports). The focus of this study is on billboards, however, which remain the most common form of outdoor advertising.

Numerous academic articles, textbooks, and industry publications list key advantages and disadvantages of outdoor advertising/billboards in comparison to other media. No prior study has examined managerial perceptions of the primary reasons for using billboards, however. Moreover, despite numerous discussions of factors associated with billboard advertising success, the literature does not address the attributes of the medium that users see as the primary factors associated with successful billboard advertising.

The purpose of this paper is to address these gaps in the literature by reporting the results of a survey of businesses that use or have used billboard advertising. The issues addressed are:

1. What are the primary reasons that companies decide to continue using billboards? What is the relative importance of these reasons?

2. What strategic and executional factors do managers believe are critical to the success of a billboard campaign?

3. What is the relationship between the reasons for using billboards and the strategic and executional factors necessary for success?

This study first examines why companies use billboards, and then considers how to use them effectively. It also introduces two theoretical perspectives, based on gravity models and selective perception, to aid in a better understanding of what drives the effectiveness of outdoor advertising. The remainder of the paper contains a review of academic research on the characteristics of billboard advertising, followed by a description of the conceptual framework guiding the study. The study's methods are then described, results are discussed, and implications and conclusions are drawn.


Characteristics of Billboards Versus Other Media

Textbook authors and academic researchers have identified a variety of distinctive characteristics of billboards and outdoor advertising (e.g., Kelley and Jugenheimer 2004; Sissors and Baron 2002; Taylor 1997; Vanden Bergh and Katz 1999; Woodside 1990). The advantages of using billboards include, among other things: (1) potential placement of the advertisement close to the point of sale, (2) high frequency of exposure to regular commuters, (3) high reach, (4) 24-hour presence, (5) geographic flexibility for local advertisers, (6) economic efficiency in terms of low production costs and low cost per thousand exposures, (7) visual impact from advertisement size and message creativity, and (8) brand awareness. Disadvantages include: (1) the need to limit the number of words in the message, (2) short exposure to the advertisement, (3) low demographic selectivity, and (4) measurement problems. A recent study of billboard users found that compared with other media, billboards were rated higher in terms of ability to (1) communicate information affordably, (2) attract new customers, and (3) increase sales (Taylor and Franke 2003). While many advantages of billboards have been identified anecdotally, from experience, or through academic study, there is a need to investigate whether frequently listed advantages overlap with each other, and to examine whether they truly are advantages that are important to billboard users.

Executional Factors Associated with the Success of Billboards

Relatively few studies have attempted to examine executional factors associated with the effectiveness of billboard advertising. However, a few have provided very specific advice for outdoor advertisers. In examining the outcomes of outdoor advertising, some studies found that a novel or very creative execution could improve recall or attention to billboards (Fitts and Hewett 1977; Hewett 1975). Thus, use of a clever creative execution is one factor that has been hypothesized to correlate with effective outdoor advertising.

In a content analysis of billboards, Blasko (1985) examined whether advertisers were following accepted creative principles associated with outdoor advertising. Drawing on Burton's Advertising Copywriting (1983) and the Traffic Audit Bureau's Planning for Out-of-Home Media (1977), Blasko listed five main principles of effective billboard advertising: (1) short copy (eight or fewer words in copy), (2) simple background, (3) product identification (billboard clearly identifies product or advertiser), (4) simple message (single message communicated), and (5) creative (use of clever phrases and/or illustrations).

Studies conducted by Donthu, Cherian, and Bhargava (1993) and Bhargava, Donthu, and Caron (1994) found recall of billboards to be positively related to a variety of factors, including brand differentiation, emphasis on product performance, inclusion of price, use of a photograph, use of humor, use of color, and a good location for the billboard. The 1993 study emphasized that advertising recall can be enhanced by using fewer words or unusual executions.

As with the key advantages of outdoor advertising, there have been many discussions of strategic and executional factors related to the success of billboards, but little systematic investigation of the underlying factors that drive successful billboard advertising. Below, we offer some insight on these factors by providing two theoretical perspectives on the promotional role of billboards.


Two theoretical perspectives are used as a basis for hypotheses in this study. First, because humans have limited information-processing capacity, part of the attraction of billboards involves their ability to cut through clutter. To deal with the large volume of advertisements shown, people engage in selective perception, which involves screening out advertisements that are less relevant to them (Celsi and Olson 1988; Mowen and Minor 1998). Second, because a billboard appears at a specific location, many of its advantages are linked to geographic factors. As is suggested by gravity models in retailing (e.g., Allaway, Berkowitz, and D'Souza 2003; Bell, Ho, and Tang 1998), in the absence of a compelling stimulus such as substantially larger floor space for selling, consumers are more prone to shop closer to home.

Selective Perception and Clutter

A key obstacle to advertising effectiveness is the volume of advertising to which consumers are exposed. Godin (1999) reports that an average consumer is exposed to approximately one million marketing messages every year. To help manage this volume of information, consumers control their own information processing and engage in selective perception, which leads to processing only a limited number of advertisements and ignoring many others.

Selective perception has been conceptualized as a four-part process consisting of selective exposure, attention, comprehension, and retention. In an advertising context, selective exposure refers to people limiting the communications they see and hear to those that conform to their preexisting ideas and attitudes (Burgoon, Hunsaker, and Dawson 1994). Selective attention refers to actually paying attention to the advertisement once exposed to it. Selective comprehension involves the process by which the consumer reconciles the advertisement's content with preexisting beliefs. Finally, selective retention is defined as remembering messages that are more consistent with one's prior beliefs and one's own self-image. When related to advertising, these four stages generally must occur before the advertisement reaches the consumer. At a minimum, attention and retention must take place (Assael 1981). As a result, advertisers must consider how selective perception is affecting their ability to get a message through to consumers.

Because of the heavy volume of advertising to which consumers are exposed, they must decide which advertisements to screen out and which to process. As media-planning expert Erwin Ephron has observed, outdoor advertising is unique in that people are not involved in the medium as they would be when watching a television program or reading the newspaper. As a result, Ephron (2004) has described outdoor advertising as a unique case in which the "medium is the message." When driving by a billboard, a motorist is not bombarded with other media options, so selective perception is not as much of an obstacle as in some other media. Although the short exposure time and lack of involvement in the medium mandate that higher frequency of exposure is necessary for billboards to have the same impact as other media (Cannon and Riordan 1994; Murray and Jenkins 1992), the ability to cut through a cluttered advertising environment is a key benefit of billboards. In short, billboards have a special advantage in that they are generally seen in a setting where there is less competition for people's attention. As a result, they may appeal to advertisers because of their ability to get noticed, especially at times and places when consumers are considering a purchase or are ready to buy (e.g., billboards for tourist attractions, retail stores, …

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