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Billboard Bloopers and How to Avoid Them

Updated on February 13, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker with over 25 years of experience in sales, marketing, advertising, and public relations.


If you see me chuckling as I drive down the road, it's likely due to the myriad of billboard bloopers I encounter almost daily during my commute from place to place. But in all honesty, the money being wasted on these standard and electronic billboards is anything but laughable.

I'll review some of the most notable examples I've seen. We can only hope that the financial pain of not using effective outdoor advertising techniques will be enough to get them to mend their ways.

While the focus is on outdoor use, all of the principles discussed here apply to trade show and retail traffic indoors as well.

Let's get this show on the road...

Top Ten Billboard Bloopers

Have you seen any of these bloopers?

  1. Wrong Direction. This billboard advertised a mattress on special at a furniture store. Okay, except that the store was about one to two miles in the opposite direction. Tip: Place the ad on the path where people are headed.
  2. Not Telling 'Em Where to Go. This electronic board advertised the wait time for service in a local hospital's emergency room/urgent care facility. Actually, that's a great idea for those who need help now! Only problem was that the logo for the hospital was really small. So unless viewers were familiar with the minuscule logo, it would be difficult to know what hospital it was. Plus, knowing this hospital is a massive complex, it didn't direct drivers what exit ramp or hospital entrance to use. Tip: Clearly indicate how to get to the business. Also note how far away that is from the billboard (i.e. 2 miles ahead on the right). If the business is a website, make the web address big and easy to remember.
  3. Mixing Markets. A discount retailer used some very sophisticated image advertising for their low prices. In this board, a high fashion model holds what appears to be an everyday household product and then there's a price listed. First, it's difficult to determine what the product is (this will be discussed next). Next, the mixing of low prices with high fashion image advertising can be a confusing mashup of messages that is not easily understood at 35 to 45 miles an hour. Tip: Make sure the message speaks to the market sought... fast!
  4. Squinting Required. In the advertisement just discussed, the featured product held by the model covered very little space on the surface. In fact, it was nearly impossible to tell what the product was without squinting. So how would one know whether the featured price was a good deal if the product isn't known? Tip: Whether it's pictures or text, go large!
  5. No Contrast. A bakery restaurant featured a huge photo of one of their sandwiches. Scored points for that! Only problem was that a little logo for the restaurant was plopped right on top of the sandwich photo, making it impossible to figure out what restaurant was actually being advertised. Tip: Whether it's a logo or text to identify the business, make sure it stands out from the background, whether the background is a solid color or a photo. Dark text on light backgrounds, or light/bright on dark, is typically recommended. This becomes exceptionally crucial when using electronic billboards. Test, test, test for quick readability from a distance.
  6. Speed Limited. Even at a mid-range speed of 35 miles an hour in an urban or suburban area, drivers have mere split seconds to absorb a billboard message. Gobs of text and difficult to decipher images will be tuned out in the same split seconds. Tip: Remember that when reviewing a potential billboard design on a computer, it's being viewed up close and slowly.
  7. Whose Billboard is This? Magazine and newspaper advertisements can often use subtle techniques when identifying the advertiser. Designers for these ads may put a small logo for the advertiser in a corner or blended in with the overall design. But using the same design strategy for outdoor advertising to be viewed quickly at a distance, as on a billboard, it becomes lost. If the viewer gets nothing else from the board, the advertiser's name and/or logo should be memorable. Adding a large website address if space is available is a plus. Tip: Make the advertiser's name, logo and website address BIG, readable and memorable!
  8. Mystery Marketing. A cleanly designed billboard promoted the name of a smartphone app. Guessed that it was an app for driving, but what was the benefit the app offered? Not a clue. Not planning on downloading it either. Tip: Curiosity ends with the next traffic safety threat in drivers' paths. Offer a compelling and clear call to action and benefit that they'll remember when not driving.
  9. Multiple Messages. It's very tempting to want to fill every square inch of billboard since there's so much of it. Resist the temptation! Drivers can only process limited information. Tip: Limit billboard to one primary message and call to action.
  10. Who Cares? A series of billboards touted a hospital's awards (that no one understands except those in the industry). Usually these types of messages create a "So?" response from those not in the know, which would be most potential patients. And since these prospects don't much care about the message, the billboard gets tuned out along with the scenery. Also, some of the recent examples seen in this category also had very little contrast, making them even more forgettable. Tip: Benefits, please!

Yes, Good Billboard Examples Exist!

Wondering if there are any good billboards? Sure there are! Some examples seen:

  • Quick service restaurant that advertised unlimited breakfast pancakes for $4. Restaurant logo and location were really large. The huge picture of pancakes sealed the deal. Sweet!
  • A specialty market talent agency was advertising auditions for actors, models and other talent. The billboard merely said they were hosting auditions for actors, models and talent. Their website was in large dark color letters on a white ground (good contrast to make it readable from a distance), with a couple photos of attractive people.
  • Some years back, a hospital advertised that they offered some routine health tests and screenings even on Sundays, along with their large logo. Huge benefit for patients who might normally have to take time off work for these visits. The billboard answered it all: who, what, where and when in a sentence or two, plus a logo. Brilliant!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne


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