The Case Against Digital Outdoor

When will we stop wasting our money on a deadbeat medium?

I just have to say this one thing.

Nobody loves outdoor advertising more than I do. And nobody hates digital outdoor advertising more than I do. 

How many times have you been burning down the highway when you see a digital billboard that intrigues you, only to have it change before you have read everything? It just flickers and it's gone.

The problem is, it does keep popping up with a solid consistency in sales teams' digital spreadsheets, always emphasizing the medium's absolute effectiveness. That feels just about as true as when Jay Chiat claimed that the open-space office would make workers more collaborative and productive. The fact is, Jay just wanted to pay less rent. And outdoor companies just want to get more revenue from theirs. You can hear the snickering sales guys back at HQ. "Guess what, I'm going to sell the same outdoor board to four different clients." High-fives all around. 

Yes, there are creative executions that take advantage of the timeliness that digital outdoor can provide, and there are wonderful digital installations in places like Piccadilly Circus. That is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the other 99 percent of the buys, the random generic messaging racing by in 20-second intervals, the ads that catch your eye with a perfectly targeted message, and then, having seized your attention, switch to an exterminator ad featuring a giant hairy rat.

Whenever I see a media plan with digital outdoor in it, the first thing I do is take it out. Sometimes it worms its way back in, but not without a healthy argument.

To put it dramatically, I would posit that almost every dollar invested in digital outdoor is an inverse measurement of how much that media buyer actually cares about their brand. Again, there are exceptions, but in general whoever is buying digital outdoor merely wants to click "buy" and go home. 

The fact is, nobody really cares. Negligence is pervasive in our business, which is why we have programmatic media buys dropping multimillion-dollar media buys in front of bots. It's terrible but nobody can be bothered with thinking it through, even though all that waste severely impacts the bottom line. 

Again, I absolutely love great outdoor. It provokes conversations, attention, buzz. In an increasingly nanocast era, it is the last broadcast medium. I really don't think brands spend enough on outdoor. But digital outdoor is to outdoor what cold, watery oatmeal is to breakfast—i.e., it totally sucks. 

I've looked for the data that supports my argument, but apparently there is not much interest out there in disproving the sales teams' wild claims. Which means clients will keep wasting money on a deadbeat medium, money that could be spent building their brand. It's not a tragedy the way climate change is a tragedy, but it is just more bullshit in an industry that could use less bullshit.  

OK, there, I got that off my chest. Now, who wants to talk about basketball?

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Toby Barlow
Toby Barlow is chief creative officer of Lafayette American.

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