I’m writing this in the foyer of Christie’s auction house, Los
I’m here on a dual-purpose mission. First, to offer an obscene amount of
greenbacks for the boxing boots worn by Muhammad Ali in his glorious
defeat of George Foreman in 1974 (looking around, however, I can see I’m
about to be thoroughly out-obscened). And second, to bid for as many
vintage boxing posters as I can possibly lay my paddle on.
How very apt, then, that I should receive Campaign’s call to review
David Bernstein’s Advertising Outdoors - Watch This Space!, minutes
before my departure. So, a big yellow book on posters. Major tome or
outdoor space oddity? Well, having read the thing twice, cover to cover,
I can confidently confirm it to be the former. With one tiny quibble.
The cover. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but in
this case, I suggest you go one step further and throw the bloody thing
With 220 full-colour pages featuring the finest posters on the planet
inside, it baffles me why they wouldn’t want to stick at least one of
the buggers on the outside. (Personally, I’d have slapped the 1944
French poster for Coruba Rum all over it.) Other than that, Watch This
Is a masterpiece. It’s an Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About
Posters But Were Too Busy Producing A Sub-Standard TV Commercial To Ask,
sort of book.
Its premise is roughly that posters - or outdoor, as they now prefer to
be addressed - have come an awful long way and yet nowhere at all.
They’ve been gracing the streets since 1740 and they’re as good today as
they have always been.
The layout of the book is striking. All the text is kept to a narrow
strip occupying the top quarter of each spread. This has the effect of
dividing the book in two: the posters dominating the layout and reducing
text to captioning. Which is why I found myself reading the book twice:
once for images, once for text. It is very difficult to tear your eyes
away from those images.
Bernstein understands posters. He understands advertising. And he
presents his case with consummate wit and precision. Anyone who’s ever
seen the great man perform ’live’ will appreciate the superb one-liners
in the book. He calls outdoor ’the happy medium’, describing posters as
When quoting Leo Burnett (that’s the bloke, not the building) as someone
who ’digs for the inherent drama in every product’, he reminds us that
’burrowed interest’ beats borrowed interest every time.
The strength of the book for me is the way that Bernstein makes eras
interchangeable. This is no chronological history of posters. It tries
to explain the timeless potency of the medium itself. The yawn-inducing
’is advertising art?’ debate is neatly curtailed with the line:
’Painting is an end in itself. Posters are a means to an end.’ My
Posters are about one thing: the idea. I’ve seen people argue for hours
over the merits of a ’beautifully shot’, ’fabulously edited’,
idea-lacking television commercial. Can’t happen with posters. With a
poster you’re naked. There’s just you. Stood standing on a street corner
with your idea hanging out. Better make it a whopper. The world is
watching. And just think ... no excuses, no re-released pop music track
to hide behind, no trendy director with an unpronounceable name, not
even part two of Coronation Street to come to your rescue.
But get it right and you’re airborne. Years ago, every great debate in
every playground and pub began with the line: ’Did you see THAT on telly
Not anymore. We’re reaching the point where no three people will have
watched the same TV channel, let alone the same programme the night
The only thing they will have all seen is their local outdoor
The last great universal advertising medium, as Bernstein calls it. The
only channel you can’t zap away from.
Watch This Space! reaches a stark conclusion about outdoor in the new
millennium. Where once it was seen as a ’support’ medium, with the bulk
of the money spent elsewhere, it is increasingly becoming the very
platform of ’support’ beneath an increasingly fragmented media
landscape. As Bernstein explains, outdoor no longer means just
billboards. It encompasses everything from pavements to police cars to
wheelchairs and petrol pumps. To say it’s here to stay is an
understatement. It’s here to go.
For so long, outdoor has been advertising’s Cinderella medium, left at
home with the dirty dishes while the ugly sisters squabbled over
TV-production budgets and production values.
But no more. Lock up your Prince Charmings, ’cause outdoor’s going to
the Ball. What’s more, she’ll probably be wearing THAT dress and she
won’t be going home at midnight.
Trevor Beattie is creative director at BDDP GGT
Advertising Outdoors - Watch This Space! is published by Phaidon Press,
price pounds 45.00.