Three Billboards, two Oscars, one powerful message
A view from James Whitmore

Three Billboards, two Oscars, one powerful message

When it came to Mildred Hayes' big message about police inaction, programmatic digital just didn't cut it, writes the managing director of outdoor media audience research company Route.

Last night saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among the big winners at the Oscars, losing out on the top prize to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, but picking up Best Actress (for Frances McDormand, pictured accepting her award) and Best Supporting Actor.

While the film has received critical acclaim in the film world, it has also captured the imagination of the advertising industry.

In the movie, protagonist Mildred Hayes buys three prominent billboards on a side road into her home town in order to get noticed and drive home her message to the chief of police to hunt down her daughter’s murderer.

Although the ad sales manager in Ebbing, Red Welby, had a distinct lack of digital out-of-home screens on his books, the medium’s ability to deliver timely and relevant messages was clearly the most powerful way for Mildred to get her point across.

Billboards have long been a way for brands to speak to both individuals and mass audiences at scale. Today in adland, the pressure is on to deliver results and direct response media offer all forms of measurement but little accountability.

The focus on sales targets leads to a shift away from using brand media in communications plans. Mildred clearly disagreed, deciding on a strategy of fame for her message.

Her intuitive call is backed up by the audience research. Route’s own data shows that three billboards outside Reading will be seen by over two thirds of the town’s population in a month. Smart cookie.

In a recent article, Alex Aiken, executive director for government communications, acknowledged that while attention has shifted to developing purely digital tactics, in a recent regional campaign, the single most effective way of reaching target audiences was a huge poster outside of the local shopping centre. He must have seen the film.

The movie has inspired a slew of creative responses from the advertising industry, from the likes of BBH Labs in the UK and political campaigners in the US, as well as becoming a popular online meme.

Unsurprisingly, Fox Searchlight, the film’s producers, embraced the impact of outdoor media, buying spots on digital screens in its campaign to promote the picture.

It would be odd to forego the opportunity to match the film title to the medium – contextual advertising being the current buzz phrase.

But they’re not the only ones taking out billboards in their bid to win. Posters are a crucial part of building public and industry support ahead of awards season, and as highlighted in The New Yorker, it "is a very visible, localized way of showing the love and support that actors, directors, and others involved in film production crave."

Bank, Binet and Field, in their IPA study into effectiveness, highlight that out-of-home has increased its brand effectiveness as digital penetration has grown.

The same research also finds that the medium increases market share gains, builds brands fame, attracts more customers and crucially, boosts profit growth by 20% when compared to campaigns that don’t use outdoor.

The audience data show that out-of-home has the highest reach of any medium, for any demographic. A sound platform from which to get the message across, short or long-term. In this respect, out-of-home wins the award every time.

James Whitmore is managing director of outdoor media audience research Route