Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you've been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it's serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.
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Art Everywhere in the United Kingdom. (Photo: ell-r-brown/Flickr)

Art Everywhere in the United Kingdom. (Photo: ell-r-brown/Flickr)

Perhaps you've already heard: Five prominent American museums have joined forces to produce what they've deemed "the biggest art exhibition in history." The project, titled Art Everywhere U.S., involves placing copies of 58 great American works of art produced between the years 1778 and 2008 in 50,000 locations across the nation for the month of August. This means you might see a painting by Edward Hicks on a billboard, a Rothko on a bus shelter, or a Warhol on the wall of a subway station. Consider it an art project that commandeers spots traditionally set aside for advertising to instead advertise the majesty of art.  The campaign's goal is rather clear: Transform public space into an outdoor gallery to get more people interested in visiting a museum or two.

But another campaign is also at play here. Besides prompting a conversation about the role of art in our daily lives and promoting the names of the five participating institutions—the Dallas Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, a trade group for out-of-home advertisers and an Art Everywhere U.S. collaborator, is hoping the project will get more people looking up and around again instead of down at their digital devices. Major sponsors also include big-name advertisers such as CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor, and JCDecaux.

"The outdoor industry is under threat," Rob Schwartz, the global creative president of advertising firm TBWA, told the New York Times last April. Indeed, research company eMarketer estimates that in 2014 over 28 percent of the total $180 billion spent on advertising in the U.S. will go toward digital, while the outdoor industry will receive just four percent. In the future, the gulf between these two mediums is only expected to increase.

"I think that billboards, if the creative is good, remain a great and effective medium. Why? It's one of the only public and shared experiences remaining."

And this makes sense. Brands have limited advertising budgets; people have limited attention spans. With more and more of us spending more and more time looking at tablets and smartphones, brands increasingly choose to target potential customers with data garnered from a person's online activity instead of a billboard located along a highway. According to eMarketer, in 2013, for the first time ever, American adults spent more hours with digital media than television—five hours, 14 minutes per day compared to four hours, 31 minutes.

AS WITH ALL ADVERTISING, the ability of a billboard to transform an individual into a consumer of a particular product or service can be difficult to gauge. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America states that though outdoor posters existed prior to the 20th century, billboards only became uniform in size and structure in 1900, leading to brands such as Kellogg's and Coca-Cola creating mass-produced billboard ads for national campaigns. A Timearticle from 1925, however, states that advertisers had already "begun "to have their doubts about the actual value of billboard advertising."

But in 2009, consumer research firm Arbitron (acquired by Nielsen in 2013) produced a study suggesting that over 70 percent of American adults notice the message on a billboard either sometimes, most of the time, or every time they pass one while traveling in a vehicle. Of this group, almost three-quarters of them shop on their way home from work, and over two-thirds decide, either frequently or sometimes, what to buy while still in the car. All of this adds up to a prime opportunity for advertisers to make one last appeal.

Last year, research published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention  found that signs along the road containing words linked to either positive or negative emotions can have adverse effects on drivers' attention and reaction times. While potentially dangerous, advertisers can look at it a different way: People are reading the ads. Furthermore, another recent survey found that when tourists first visit Times Square—the mecca of outdoor messages—60 percent of them spend at least five minutes looking at the signage. Over 80 percent of the participants claimed they would be more likely to buy from a brand that advertises there, too.

At the same time, not everyone is convinced digital advertising works super-effectively, either. Last April, eMarketer gave mobile ads an overall effectiveness rating of “B-.”

WHILE ART EVERYWHERE U.S. may temporarily get more people interested in the words and images present throughout the urban environment, it's not a long-term solution. For Edward Boches, a professor of advertising at Boston University, the question is whether the outdoor industry is attempting to defend what it's been in the past instead of finding new ways to become more modern, more contemporary, and more integrated into the digital landscape.

"I think that billboards, if the creative is good, remain a great and effective medium," Boches explained to me over email. "Why? It's one of the only public and shared experiences remaining. Given the fragmentation of media (digital, social, on-demand TV), there are few opportunities remaining where we see something at the same time we know others are seeing it."

If out-of-home advertisers can harness the drama inherent to giant-sized billboards and their unique position in the market, Boches argues, the industry's longevity looks bright. This strategy, of course, involves incorporating more interactive elements and social utility. In the U.K., for example, Pepsi Max has experimented with putting user-generated Vine videos on billboards. In a campaign titled Smarter Cities for IBM, the advertising firm Ogilvy designed outdoor ads that double as benches, ramps up stairs, and shelters from the rain. In this sense, these IBM promotions don't just describe how the corporation can make cities smarter; they show it by becoming a useful part of the infrastructure.

"That being said," Boches adds, "there is a lot of crap and local car dealerships whose advertising is damaging the power and potential of this great American medium."

Then again, today there's not always a clear distinction between art and advertising. The best kinds of ads seem to contain just as much creativity, mischief, romance, humor, and beauty as what people go to see in a gallery. And perhaps it's this blurriness that Art Everywhere U.S. is hoping to exploit. As eccentric media theorist Marshall McLuhan once put it, "Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century."

Still, for Jillian Steinhauer, a senior editor at the New York-based publication Hyperallergic, which covers news in the contemporary art world, an important difference remains.

"Art is ambiguity, nuance," Steinhauer tells me. "Advertising can only be subtle up until a point because there's a need to get a message across, whereas art—good art—may have a point, but it will also hopefully complicate that point, question it, raise it tentatively or in a way that seems weird or takes you forever to get."

She continues: "Increasingly, I think advertising wants to be like art, but it can never open up that space for questioning and confusion the way that good art does because then it would be bad advertising."

So, if a large poster displaying Mary Cassatt's "The Boating Party" on the side of a bus passes you by before the end of the month, keep in mind that both American's finest museums and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America hope you take note.

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