How do you prove that posters work in their own right? Simple. Run a
spoof ad campaign. Claire Beale reports
The poster industry has been more vigorous in its efforts to illustrate
its effectiveness than almost any other advertising medium.
And outdoor can claim to have some of the most inventive and
entertaining case studies to support its arguments. For the poster
industry is home to the advertising spoof.
The idea behind the poster spoof is to provide evidence of the impact a
poster campaign can have. They have been adopted by the outdoor industry
because of the unique relationship between the medium and its audience.
Dennis Sullivan, the chairman of the poster specialist, Portland
Outdoor, points out: ‘There’s such an absence of solid qualitative
research in the outdoor industry that the poster contractors have been
forced to manufacture their own campaigns, and then test them.’
One of the problems that outdoor faces when it comes to audience
research is the passive nature of the medium.
Active exposure to ads cannot be measured according to the number of
people tuning in, or paying a cover price, or buying a ticket. Posters
are a public medium.
Of course, outdoor has its own audience measurement system: and a new
souped-up, more comprehensive one at that, in the form of Postar. But
while outdoor advertisers can now judge who is seeing their ad and how
often, where posters cannot match other media is in offering advertisers
a particular editorial environment to buy into.
Francis Goodwin, the mastermind behind some of the UK’s most high-
profile poster spoofs, and the managing director of Maiden Roadside,
says: ‘Outdoor is a pure advertising medium. Its impact is unfettered by
an editorial environment.’
So while other media owners spend thousands of pounds researching their
products and use the findings as a comfort blanket to convince
advertisers about the value of the environment they offer, outdoor
contractors have concentrated on proving that people notice posters, and
But that’s where things become difficult. Many poster ads echo the
message of press or TV work from the same campaign. Some are simply
blown-up press ads or TV stills. When testing posters, how can
advertisers be sure that respondents are remembering them and not one or
a combination of messages from other media? The fact that advertisers
rarely use posters in isolation means outdoor has traditionally been
seen as a support medium for TV or press ads.
Poster contractors have also looked to research to prove the
effectiveness of outdoor as a standalone medium, capable of launching a
product into the market.
The answer for many has been the spoof poster campaign - an ad campaign
solely for outdoor, for a product that does not exist and hence has not
been advertised anywhere else. If people remember the ads, it’s solely
because they’ve seen the posters. This means that recall levels can be
used to show the role posters play in introducing a new product to the
The UK boasts some legendary poster spoofs, such as the campaign by More
O’Ferrall Adshel for an Australian perfume called ‘Sheila’, which
depicted a fragrance bottle with a ring of corks hung round it. Before
that, there was MOFA’s mysterious ‘Amy’ campaign - posters that told the
world, ‘Amy Doesn’t Like Slugs’. Indeed, the poster spoof idea has been
used throughout the world to prove the effectiveness of the medium.
But how seriously do advertisers and agencies take the findings of these
studies? How valid is an awareness score for an unusual product (Sheila
- the perfume that also kills flies) that uses the sort of wacky
creative work that wouldn’t get past the average marketing director?
Ivor Hussein, the head of media research at Lowe Howard-Spink, believes
such studies should be treated with caution: ‘Of course, the spoofs are
based on highly artificial situations and they are almost as much a
measurement of creative treatment as they are of the effectiveness of
the medium itself. Also, the fact that they are promoting new or unusual
products means that the results can’t be as relevant to established
However, he believes they can still be useful to the people who create,
plan and buy poster campaigns. ‘You can’t take these spoofs at face
value, but that goes for all media-owner research. And as for other
media-owner research, you can usually find something of value in it once
you understand how it’s been put together and its strengths and
MOFA’s managing director, Vincent Slevin, is blunt: ‘They’re balls as
far as pure research is concerned. But they’re great for making the
point that posters can be enormously visible if you’ve got interesting
If the contractors are sceptical, what value do the media buyers place
on the spoof findings? Nigel Mansell, the managing director of the
poster specialist, Concord, believes that the studies are effective PR
exercises, ‘but you have to take them with a pinch of salt’.
However, he agrees that they have some value. ‘This sort of research
does give an indication of what is possible - you can’t refute that this
particular piece of creative treatment generated that particular
response. At best, they provide a high benchmark that illustrates the
potential of the medium.’
Goodwin says there has been an evolution in the way spoofs are
conducted. ‘First you had ‘Amy’, which was more like a charity ad than
an ad for a specific product. So then we launched the ‘Sheila’ campaign,
which could have been for a real product, but wasn’t. There was some
criticism then that we were achieving the sort of results that a
campaign for an actual, existing product wouldn’t.
‘Later, in 1994, we found a real product - a bubble bath range called
Scallywags - that had never been advertised before and used it as the
basis to test the effectiveness of the outdoor medium. The test campaign
drove sales and underlined the value of posters as a solus medium.’
So does this research evolution actually signal the death of the spoof
campaign? Has the industry matured beyond the need for the spoof, with
all its flaws? Goodwin says: ‘Give it a few years and some marketing
director will decide the time is right to do another. And that too will
have some value all of its own.’
Sheila is perhaps the most famous poster spoof to be shown to the UK
public. The brainchild of Francis Goodwin, the then marketing director
of More O’Ferrall Adshel, the campaign launched in the spring of 1989.
Goodwin used the idea to test the effectiveness of the company’s bus-
shelter sites, but the results have since come to be seen as an
endorsement of the outdoor medium as a whole.
MOFA joined forces with Leagas Shafron Davis to devise ads for a
fictitious Australian perfume that was supposedly making its debut in
the UK. They depicted a perfume bottle, complete with a stopper shaped
like a typical bushwacker’s hat, with the immortal strapline, ‘Also
MOFA decided on two different weights for the campaign. The first was a
single-weight campaign using 2,500 sites - measured after two weeks and
four weeks. The results revealed an impressive 30 per cent awareness
after two weeks. However, after four weeks this had only increased to 34
In a double-weight campaign using 5,000 sites, awareness was 42 per cent
after two weeks, rising to 59 per cent after four weeks.
The campaign certainly proved that, not only could posters generate high
levels of awareness, but they could do so for a brand that was
The findings were also used as evidence of the effectiveness of shorter,
heavier-weight poster campaigns.
Australia’s ‘Haka Bitter’ study was designed to prove that outdoor could
be used as a standalone medium.
The General Outdoor Advertising Company of Australia came up with the
idea of using an unknown beer brand to test the medium. A local brewery
liked the idea so much it began to brew and distribute it.
The GOACA devised four humorous posters to launch the brand and the
campaign ran at 50 GRPs for an eight-week period in the summer of 1993.
The ads ran in Brisbane and surrounding suburbs and the media spend,
Ausdollars 50,000 (pounds 24,000), was well below that of most of the
Despite its lower spend, and the fact that a combination of TV, print
and radio work was used for most other products in the sector, post-
campaign analysis showed that Haka Bitter had more than double the
unprompted awareness of established beer brands.
In an environment of well-established competitors, the Haka Bitter
poster campaign not only generated high awareness, but also prompted
heavy product trial over a short period of time.
However, Chris Tyquin of GOACA sounds a note of caution for contractors.
‘The whole process of a spoof campaign can do wonders for an entire
industry, but, as we have found here in Australia, your competitors can
undo all the good you might have done through irresponsible marketing
and unnecessary price cutting.’
Doris and Harry
Doris and Harry wasn’t so much a product as a service that Mediacom, one
of Canada’s largest poster contractors, used as the basis for its spoof
It used bus-shelter sites for a series of personal messages from the
pair, (and their dog Rover) who were having a few marital problems. The
campaign ran in Toronto over an eight-week period at 75 GRPs.
The first ad in the series was a simple plea from the heart: ‘Come home
Doris, all is forgiven. Harry.’ It generated interest from the local
press and, by week two, when the message, ‘Go stuff it Harry. Doris’,
appeared, one member of the public was reportedly so desperate to find
out what the product was that she offered to pay to find out.
Mediacom received 26,754 calls in two weeks and the results at the end
of the campaign were hailed as a media breakthrough.
Doris and Harry were seen as a clear illustration of the possible impact
a poster campaign can have, although some agencies still questioned
their value to advertisers with more mundane products.