Reading Comprehension At 70 MPH

Ben Franklin is reported to have once written “I apologize for the length of this letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

I chose Ben’s quote for our on-going discussion of advertising to draw attention to a basic truism: it takes more skill to craft a six word outdoor message than it does to write a 180 word radio commercial, or a quarter-page newspaper ad.

Why six words? Because in order to see those words one usually glances at the “board” while doing 45 miles per hour down a city street (simultaneously watching for traffic) or while tooling down the highway at 70 mph. This requires the message to be short, simple, and easily comprehended.

Perhaps six words are too restricting. Maybe eight words will work. Maybe eleven. But if you’re using eleven words, they’d better be short words. And short and simple, by themselves, aren’t enough. The key is to make those few words attention-getting, and memorable. This is where 99% of the outdoor advertising examples you and I see just don’t cut it. (Remind me sometime to rant about visual clichés).

According to the Institute of Outdoor Advertising, outdoor has the ability to “generate awareness, create interest, and sell your product/service.” That was what IOA’s VP of Research, Cathy Hodges, told me in a letter 20 years ago. (Yes, I am an information pack rat. Yes, I really do still have the material she graciously sent May 2, 1985).

In fact, the research indicates that with a 50 showing, over a four week schedule, you’ll reach nearly 80% of the adults in your market more than 13 times. There’s no doubt that outdoor advertising is the most cost-effective way to reach large numbers of people.

Major national advertisers can use a short statement to reinforce the message they’re sending over other forms of mass media. We’ve all seen McDonalds, or Budweiser, or Ford extend the impact of their television with outdoor as a “reminder,” to build frequency.

Other national advertisers market image, and don’t make a direct promise: Marlboro, Black Velvet, Chanel No. 5, or Coors Lite. Sometimes a strong outdoor showing is the only medium necessary to promote that image and build awareness.

And on a local level, other media sometimes provide the best examples of how to effectively use outdoor. “Burt Smith, Accuweather, Channel Six at Ten,” for example.

But for most local advertisers, outdoor isn’t a good choice.

It’s that six-to-eleven-word practical limitation.

More words mean less readership. Fewer words make it much harder to craft a strong message. Writing effective copy for billboards requires incredible skill.

Today, however, we shall not dwell on the negative. Let me instead share with you of several gems that I saw as I drove North on I-35 from Wizard of Ads ® Headquarters South of Austin to my home West of Fort Worth.

I saw hundreds of boards on this four and a half hour trip. Sadly, there are only six examples worth remembering.

Those that I don’t remember? Several dozen real estate developments, all with pretty houses and such memorable messages as “Pinecrest, from the $180’s.” Car dealers bragging that they “will not be undersold.” Indistinguishable restaurant after indistinguishable restaurant after indistinguishable restaurant.

But six that did stand out are excellent. Let’s look at them, shall we?

First, my favorite use of outdoor – to give directions. Oh, you can add the promise of a benefit? So much the better.

I appreciated this board for the touch of subtlety in it’s implied promise. Additionally, the Best Western logo was wrapped around the globe. Obviously, Best Western is everywhere. Excellent imagery:


Somewhere in Beaumont, Texas, a writer in the Visitor’s Bureau deserves a raise. Over a photo of the sun setting on the water:

Some of the best radio and television ads are public service announcements. That’s not surprising. Effective advertising involves emotions. Most writers admit that the easiest ads involve issues about which people are already emotional.

Here’s the outdoor version of a public service announcement. Next to a graphic of an upside-down truck it said:

Appreciate this next one for it’s simplicity. This board has been posted on major thoroughfares throughout the South for the last decade. Apparently gentlemen from Atlanta to El Paso have proven to be willing to travel to Houston for the procedure:

This is too good an idea to not use locally. Chris Gloede, in his Rants On Modern Marketing blog suggests that with the proliferation of cell phones, a billboard is a great place to post a number to call for special offers or more information. It’s an idea worth stealing. Be sure to send Chris a “Thank you” note.

And my final example, this board combines a strong implied benefit, with an excellent name, all wrapped up with a direction. As a bonus, the name (Bush’s Quick Chicken) and the implied benefit (three lane drive through) both promise the same thing… that I only have to pull off the road for a minute. Brilliant use of the medium. This board is my favorite of the whole trip:

Considering outdoor? The cost of exposure isn’t the most important question. A much more important question is “Can I make an elegantly simple presentation of my business in only a few words?

Well, can you?

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