Does outdoor advertising have more impact in the digital era?

by Nigel Hollis | February 18, 2019

I lived the first 30 years of my life in the UK, so it is with exasperation and despair I watch from afar as the chaos of Brexit unfolds. But what caught my attention when I heard Brexit mentioned on the radio was that one group of protesters have resorted to outdoor advertising to register their dissatisfaction. Why would they do that?

It is commonly held that social media had a big role to play in rallying Brexiteers before the 2016 referendum so why not continue the battle there? One member of the brilliantly-named group, Led By Donkeys, puts it this way,

"There is something about the digital news cycle where all these kind of untruths and lies just fly past you and you forget about them. We thought if we put them up in the real world, you have to stand there, and look at them and digest them."

Whatever you think of Brexit, the assertion that the digital world is more transient and less real is an interesting one that should give marketers pause for thought. Is there more value to exposure in media that are in the “real world” rather than on a screen?


Based on a neuroscience study done on behalf of the UK’s Royal Mail in conjunction with the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology at Bangor University we do know that physical items can generate more impact than virtual. The study concluded,

“The “real” experience that the physical media provides means it’s better at becoming part of memory. It generates more emotion, which should help to develop more positive brand associations. The real experience is also internalized, which means the materials have a more personal effect, and therefore should aid motivation.”

Findings from our CrossMedia studies comparing outdoor directly to the impact of other media are more equivocal. Outdoor typically has good reach, but its average impact per person on awareness and motivation tends to be relatively low in developed markets. Of course, this might be because most clients are focused on digital media rather than outdoor. Where advertisers have focused on outdoor as a lead medium we have found it to be impactful, even with younger, digitally savvy audiences, and there are some great IPA case studies where traditional outdoor was paired with the new on-street medium of social.

However, to focus on one medium in isolation is missing a couple of important points. The first is that all our evidence finds that the biggest impact comes from well-integrated campaigns designed to create synergistic impact across multiple media. The second that without an idea that has the power to resonate and evoke emotions it does not matter which medium you use. The Led By Donkeys campaign clearly does resonate with many and the use of an old school medium adds not just emotional impact but makes it newsworthy as well (newsworthy enough to reach me in the USA).

You can read more about how the Led By Donkeys campaign came to be here but meanwhile, what do you think? Do media like outdoor have more impact in the digital era or is this just a good idea that could have worked in any medium? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Joseph, February 21, 2019
    Transmedia is to media what omichannel is to retail. It is not enough to have different channels anymore, but channels should be coordinated to build a logical story that is not repetitive (like in a basic multichannel situation) but remain coherent and convey a sense of continuity across different channels. Any touchpoint (online or offline) should be a starting point to a story that unfolds over a multitude of media.
  2. Nigel, February 19, 2019

    Thanks for the comments.

    Ger, while I cannot narrow things down to the UAE alone I did have a quick look at the Crossmedia database and outdoor does perform better in similar markets (essentially South East Asia, Africa and Middle East). I suspect clients still invest more time and attention into outdoor in those regions. 

  3. Deborah Dennis, February 19, 2019

    Absolutely agree that integrated campaigns work best, but attention needs to be paid to the role as well as strength/weaknesses of each medium.

    I have tended to use the description cross-channel versus integrated campaigns in recent years.  Thanks for sharing these insights!

  4. Ger Peerboom, February 19, 2019

    It is important to see that billboards are 'NOT OUT' of the communication mix and together with other channels they provide a good addition or starting point for further communication and actions.

    Two remarks on this interesting column.

    Living in the United Arab Emirates, it is interesting to read the phrase: 'its average impact per person on awareness and motivation tends to be relatively low in developed markets'; with a strong emphasis on the words 'developed markets'.

    Here in the UAE, the phenomena of billboards is there quit prominent. Those billboards are not only huge, but also impactful in what you call 'developed markets'. Think about places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai here in the UAE.

    Furthermore, what I am missing is the new trend on electronic billboards (may be only happening here in the UAE, who knows?). They are even more impactful than the usual static billboards. They will for sure over time be a game changer as they are able to participate even more on the target audience, using AI and other technologies to tailor based on time, audience and atmosphere.

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