Billboards: The strong and stable element of advertising

Political Communication: OOH’s Missed Opportunity

Out of home advertising was not a significant feature of the general election, but given the critical importance of communicating core messages to a broad electorate, was this a mistake?

We still remember and reference the iconic political billboards of bygone days as perfect illustrations of political branding: from the almost mythical Labour Isn’t Working of the late 1970s, through to more recent images of Dave Cameron sat on a car bonnet (below).

Out of home (OOH) advertising continues to broadcast reach, simple messaging and create public reference points – think ‘strong and stable’ – that can both prime or amplify the effects of other channels from TV to online and social and many in between. As a medium it forces the very essence of the message to be delivered succinctly so that it is instantly understood.

The absence of a simple broadcast strategy has arguably highlighted a shortfall in parties getting those simple messages across. Theresa May avoided TV debates and perhaps embarrassingly tried to talk to audiences through social media and the letterbox, and the Conservative campaign arguably lacked simplicity, authenticity and mass reach. Indeed, data has emerged that whilst the young turned out for Labour in unexpected numbers, so too did opinion-forming influencers aged 35-44.

Labour’s campaign was arguably less conventional, but they harnessed social media and got the tone right for their audience of the young, the undecided and those confused by Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s TV appearances and late surge of popularity connected with voters, but not enough for a victory and Labour still failed to swing either 55s+ or even C2s and above in sufficient numbers.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats’ letterbox obsession around tactical voting and key marginals seemed counter-productive (message overload) and again failed to deliver any real unified message.

This snap election precluded the use of billboards – not unsurprisingly sold out in the context of the small lead time between calling the election in April and the early June polling day – but the communication strategy drift towards niche and social platforms reveals an absence of parties’ confidence in more coherent messaging.

Many brands wrestle with the same conundrum, failing to drive clarity of message (in an increasingly complicated world) and basic consumer trust, instead bombarding more targeted messages at smaller groups that may lack true personalisation and contextual relevance.

Out of Home has changed fundamentally in profile. Digital revenues are now around 40% as some traditional locations are converted and modernisation of public and private infrastructure is designed to incorporate impactful digital advertising screens. Whilst overall billboard inventory has reduced by as much as -40% (48 sheets) and around -15% (for 6s and 96s) in just three years, what remains is of higher quality and still able to reach 95% of the population, with a high penetration in the more urban areas.

The OOH medium continues to be used by 95 of the top 100 brands because they understand three distinct truths. Firstly that OOH will grow their business by reaching not only their current customers, but also the future customers they want to talk to.

Its ubiquity is its strength. Secondly, the public have a positive attitude towards OOH advertising because it is consumed passively and almost by choice, it is not seen as invasive or interruptive.

Thirdly because it can be trusted both by the public who see messaging on billboards as a sign of strength and stature, building trust, but also by the brands who can be assured of a safe neutral editorial context in which the clarity of their message is consumed. And rarely has brand trust been as valuable as it is today.

The combination of mass reach, popular appeal, inherent trust and safe context have a natural synergy with the aspirations of political messaging and as the parties review their messaging they would do well to consider the channels which can help to define and deliver their communication to minds, hearts and the ballot box.

OOH continues to provide a strong and stable core channel for mass communication for both protagonists and recipients. The next election may not be that far away and OOH advertising could make quite an impact.

By Talon’s Nick Mawditt and Primesight’s Mungo Knott. This blog first appeared on Mediatel on the 19th June 2017.