The rise of the 48-shit poster

Outdoor ads used to be great. So what happened? Paul Burke investigates.

In the beginning

There were posters.  Paleolithic cave paintings were the forerunners of today’s 48-sheet. The poster is where our whole industry began.  It’s the purest and most iconic form of advertising.  

Everyone loves a poster

Feast your eyes on these.  Advertising at its simplest, most elegant and most effective.

Not everyone loves a poster

Open The Sunday Times Magazine and you expect to see ads.  On Classic FM, you expect to hear them.  On ITV, you’ll see and hear them.  On YouTube, you’ll probably skip them but in all these channels you understand it’s the ads that pay for the platforms they occupy.  With posters, that isn’t the case.  They’re placed intrusively into public spaces.  Nobody asked for them and they cannot be skipped, so don’t we have a duty to make them great?  Are we doing that at the moment?  Hmm.  You tell me.

They’re not called posters anymore

When I was first given a brief for radio, press and "OOH", I had no idea what the last one was.  "Out of home", apparently.  But I listen to the radio in the car; I read newspapers on the tube.  They’re both "out of home".  What do you mean?  OOH static, I was told.  Still scratching my head, I wondered whether this was the interference to radio reception that you get when you drive through a tunnel.   I do wonder whether this is where the trouble started.  Giving the humble billboard a silly new name to make it sound exciting.  And to disguise the fact that what’s on those billboards is anything but.

Your name in lights 

That’s how my friend Alan Brydon, a great champion of the medium, describes the beauty of a good poster.  Big, bold and bewitching, it’s the nearest clients get to seeing their name in lights.  It’s also an instant showcase for the team who created it.   So why are they failing to make stars of their clients and by extension, themselves?

Simple but not easy

It takes a great writer to distil a whole strategy down to one short, memorable line.  And an equally great art director to make a poster look clear, strong and appealing. The message has to be driven home to consumers who, themselves, are driving home.  I was about to conclude that creatives today must lack those fundamental skills. Then I saw this….

Au-dear me

This should prove my point about creatives’ lack of skills.  The lame line, terrible art direction.  And what’s all that guff at the bottom?   And I compared it with this…

Same client, same agency, same line.  How did such a simple and brilliant poster idea descend into what we see above it?  I can’t imagine the creatives insisted the words "beautifully designed" be added to the headline.  Nor the awful shot of a car that looks far from "beautifully designed".  And certainly not the extraneous guff at the bottom.  It could only have been the client.  You’re Audi, for heaven’s sake.  You have a proud tradition of brilliant advertising.  Your name was once in lights.  Why have you switched them off?

Be encouraged, be inspired

Because nothing’s changed. Posters are still the original advertising medium.  Constantly fresh, constantly exciting, constantly brimming with creative opportunities.  Especially in their more recent digital incarnations.  So behold some more genius in the genre.  If people love posters, they tend to love advertising.  And isn’t that what we all want?   All you have to do is create posters that make the public go "OOH!"