Gone in Five Seconds

On the Airport Expressway
Watching the I’ll-be-home-for-Christmas Crowd rush for their planes

Looking at the procession of overpriced very expensive outdoor advertising that lines the Airport Expressway here in Beijing, I cannot help but marvel at how many of the advertisers take a great chance to make a lot of good impressions (hint: poor people don’t fly) by putting horribly designed ads on billboards that are costing them upwards of $600,000 a year.

I mean if you think Chinese TV commercials are bad, as a rule, Chinese outdoor is far, far worse.

Think about this – your average driver or passenger is going to have less than 5 seconds to grasp a meaningful message from a billboard. And yet advertisers waste these impressions with billboards filled with such non-outdoor-friendly things as multiple lines of copy, phone numbers, and complex images. At that point, a billboard stops being interesting – it’s visual static. Background noise. Ignored.

And thus useless.

And thus money wasted (and a good view ruined.)

Now I have a theory – scientifically unproven but based on some experience and anecdote – that more than a few companies who actually buy these billboards wind up indirectly paying some of their own employees an unauthorized bonus. But regardless of the intent behind buying these windstoppers, one would think that you’d want to get a decent result from it, right?

So why do advertisers continue to crank out crappy billboards?

Two reasons, I think.

First, of course, is the general dearth of sophistication and experience among people making creative decisions in advertising. This is a subject so large it could be the subject of a long monograph, not to mention a blog post.

Second, and I think equally important, is that in the advertising world, there is a pecking order among the different media in terms of creative attention accorded to them. Even in China, television gets first claim on creative energies, followed by print, online, direct, point-of-sale, and all the way down to the bottom where you have outdoor and radio.

In more cases than not, it seems that outdoor creative is basically print creative that has been quickly repurposed, rather than something done specifically to take full advantage of the medium.

This needs to change. You can get away with this nonsense elsewhere, or in places where outdoor is cheap, but not here. Outdoor in China is getting expensive, and here as with any other densely populated place it screams to be used well.

Tokyo is on my mind because I’m starting a double-barrel 11 day business trip there tomorrow, but on the balance it is probably the world’s most innovative outdoor market. Walk around Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Akihabara and you’ll see what I mean. From massive television signs to small format street-level stuff, people are thinking creatively about how to make the best use of the attention people can give – and holding onto it. Billboards along the freeways deliver messages simply and quickly. No scads of copy, phone numbers, or complex images. Simple. Clear. Beautiful. Effective.

Come on, advertisers. If you’re going to block my view and grody up the skyline, at least spend some time making your windbreaks-on-a-stick worth looking at.

Because if you don’t, we’ll all be gone in 5 seconds, and your advertising dollars with us.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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