Highway Hypnosis

Man, I hate outdoor boards. For all the usual reasons. They mar the countryside. Obscure scenic views. Clutter the urban jungle. Not to mention that most of them suck creatively. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of driving on I-95, you’ve probably been subjected to the 3 million (or so) billboards advertising the South of the Border tourist trap. Sample headline: “You never sausage a place!”

Hang on. It gets worse.

In Savannah, Ga., quaint, gracious, hospitable Savannah, you’ll find several Interstate-sized boards crammed smack-dab in the middle of the lovely Victorian district. I kid you not. Street level. In your face. Inches away from beautiful houses built centuries ago. Yes, I know it’s an “out-of-home” medium. But just barely.

In Los Angeles, image is everything. So larger-than-life models with larger-than-normal lips pout from oversized boards, hawking the latest fragrance, fashion or faux fur. It seems so seductively chic at first, so L.A. But as you drive around the city, you realize these ubiquitous boards are always blocking your view of distant mountain vistas. Gray, hazy, smog-choked vistas, but how would you know if you can’t see them?

In Honolulu—wait, Hawaii doesn’t have any billboards. Good for them. Even Coke and Pepsi machines have their identities blotted out, save for their familiar red or blue colors. Talk about refreshing.

Now before you go thinking I’m some kind of tofu-eatin’, tree-huggin’, SUV-hatin’ (well, that one’s true) nutcase from Chapel Hill, let me make a confession:

Man, I love outdoor boards.

With the possible exception of radio, there’s no greater intellectual challenge than coming up with a great billboard. This is a writer’s finest hour. No offense to our art director friends, but hey, our butts are on the line here. We’re forced to pare down an idea to its essence. It must be the truth well told. Only more quickly. It’s tough work, pal.

The rules always change, of course. Some people say you can use up to 13 words. Or 11. Or 8. It doesn’t really matter, because any good writer knows less is more. Basically, you have to cut through the crap. An account guy’s rambling creative strategy gets no quarter here. You’ve got something to say. You say it. And if you nail it, your idea climbs inside the head of your viewer, giving him yet one more thing to think about while driving 75 miles an hour.

Isn’t that cool?

There have been some memorable outdoor campaigns. In 1998, on black backgrounds, messages such as “We need to talk” and “Do you have any idea where you’re going?” were signed God. Love it or hate it, the “God” campaign got people talking. Maybe even praying. (Personally, I believe if God had wanted to chat with us, he would have found a more high-dollar approach. God just seems like a TV guy to me. Big budgets, Ridley Scott directing, awesome craft services.)

Late-night creative folk, desperately poring over awards books for inspiration, have no doubt paused to admire the simplicity and clarity of campaigns for The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, ABC or The Los Angeles Times. The Times boards divided the paper’s name across the billboard with two images: One shows an L.A. scene of, say, a traffic jam (Los Angeles), the other a newsy scene of tanks in a Soviet-bloc country (Times) on the other. The tagline: “Connecting us to the Times.” In fact, that example that forces me to admit it’s often the art director’s butt on the line, too.

Here’s the best part: Outdoor levels the playing field. Unlike TV or magazine ads, the budget rarely makes or breaks the concept. Truth be told, your outdoor idea has just as good a chance of winning a One Show gold as anyone else’s.

Smart. Stimulating. Short! I’m ready to create a great outdoor board any chance I get. Just one request, though.

Don’t post it in my town.