Back to the outdoors, for people and advertising

When you’ve been isolated from outdoor advertising for a year, you start to see it with fresh eyes.

Like many this year, I’ve been staying inside for safety. 

For a New Yorker like myself, this meant no subway rides, no theaters, no public playgrounds for my kids. It’s made me yearn for the business of New York, its sounds and smells.

Even though I work in advertising, I didn’t always appreciate the ads around me. But these messages are part of our shared narrative, the backdrops of our lives. When you’ve been isolated from that for a year, you start to see it with fresh eyes.

The past year has given me a new perspective on advertising in public spaces. As head of the jury panel of the OAAA’s OBIE Awards, I found myself asking what role outdoor advertising played in a year when the audience and context had changed so much, and how it might continue to evolve as we come together again IRL. 

Scaling beyond niche audiences and communities 

Many brands start out niche, then aim to grow their audience and increase scale. Out-of-home (OOH) advertising can expose these brands to people beyond those who fit their original demographic. 

It may be surprising, but some of the biggest and most successful outdoor advertisers are tech companies. Recently Google ran an impactful campaign for search using OOH, and YouTube used it to shift attitudes toward its creators as they became mainstream. 

At R/GA, we used OOH for Reddit’s first brand campaign focused on bringing out the vote. Reddit has a large network of online communities with niche interests, yet OOH was the perfect vehicle to capture and engage a broader audience. 

We applied Reddit’s up-voting system metaphorically to a real-world question: How do you convince increasingly disaffected non-voters that their vote really matters? 

The campaign used billboards to depict popular Reddit posts. One billboard read, for example, “This photo of a piece of bread nailed to a tree received more up-votes than it took to decide the 2000 presidential election.” 

The campaign captured how the energy Redditors put behind up-votes could translate into real-world results. That not only made it meaningful for Reddit’s community, but spoke to people who don’t use Reddit but saw the ads, translating into hundreds of thousands of voter registrations in those communities.

Connecting to real world experiences 

As one of the original forms of advertising, OOH’s power has traditionally been in its simplicity and scale. The tried-and-true creative formula is a bold visual or line, often printed large on a building or above a highway, meant to attract our attention and communicate within 3 seconds. 

Recently, advertising’s focus has shifted to personal screens, with news and content targeted to extremely specific audiences. But after a year of staying home with only our devices to keep us company, we’re craving more than screen time.  

OOH brings messages into shared public spaces, making the context of where you are matter. Your brand is showing up, literally, on someone’s work commute, or at an event they attend or in the cities where they live. These real-world moments can build meaningful connections in light of the past year’s restrictions.

Creating a physical to digital conversation

OOH is evolving into more than a standalone message. With technology, it can become part of an ongoing conversation that transitions between channels. 

For Reddit’s “Up the Vote” campaign, we started a feedback loop between OOH and the Reddit platform. Someone photographed a piece of bread stapled to a tree, in front of our billboard about a piece of bread stapled to a tree, and posted it on Reddit. We then turned that photograph into a billboard to replace the original billboard, using outdoor as an extension of the platform.

We’ll continue to see OOH integrate technology more, whether that’s through QR codes on billboards or using location data to extend campaigns to mobile. And we’ll see real-world OOH campaigns built around augmented reality. There are infinite possibilities to bring a whole new dimension to real world canvases. 

I’m excited to see how the physical will continue to play a real and important role in the future. 

Tiffany Rolfe is Global Chief Creative Officer at R/GA

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