Dying for your business…

Recently, a billboard went up for A&E’s gruesome but popular new series, The Walking Dead. For those unawares, the show is about dead people returning to life to feed on the living, aka Zombies. In this case, the board went up alongside a funeral care business, prompting countless media commentary on the “unfortunate” placement. It wasn’t just the local media that was provoked but all across America stories and pictures ran –sometimes negatively, mostly humorously- detailing the “unfortunate” juxtaposition of message and location.

After which, of course, the billboard company promptly issued an apology, calling it human error and an unfortunate mistake, and took down the ad.

Unfortunate? In one day I saw this image in my morning paper, in two of the blogs I read and on the TV news at night. That’s not tragedy, folks; that’s a windfall. For the price of one billboard, A&E got more coverage than they ever would have imagined for their show without paying a dime. And since it was editorial coverage, not advertorial, chances are great that viewers of it were actively engaged as opposed to benign.

And yes, while it may seem an unfortunate event for the funeral home, I’m betting they benefited from all the attention as well. Frankly, I’m not sure that’s even a consideration anymore…

Whether they or we like it or not, social media has broken down barriers, influencing our culture profoundly. We are no longer as shy about awkward moments. On the contrary we seem to get off on them. What once was considered embarrassing is now considered entertaining, interesting and provocative. Advertising is often the catalyst for this perfect storm. Outdoor is usually the touchstone.


In the above example, a health spa put up a somewhat risqué billboard advertising its waxing services. Someone inevitably complained but rather than take down the board the company sniped it with a URL: where folks could vote on whether the original ad was offensive or not!

My opinion: I think the whole thing was contrived to create buzz for the spa. The new paradigm suggests we don’t apologize for controversy but do it more.

Special note: This post will be part of my presentation to fepe: International Federation of Outdoor Advertising in Madrid.

As some of you know, I’m hosting the Obie Awards for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The Obies celebrate the best outdoor advertising in the Nation. What some of you may not know is that the Obies are the oldest advertising awards show in the world, predating the Clios, One Show and even Cannes.

(Video of my presentation is located in “About Me” section in header.)

Since creating the “curiously strong” mints campaign for Altoids over 15 years ago, I’ve appreciated the out-of-home medium and all it can do for a brand… not to mention a career!

With Altoids, we took a tiny, virtually unknown confection and turned it into the number one selling mint in North America, all without making one single television commercial.

Outdoor advertising took Altoids places it had never gone before. And visa versa. It was truly a match made in heaven. And one for which I am eternally grateful.

Below are my opening remarks at the Obie awards, posted here several hours before making them…

Right now everyone is talking about social media. And rightly so. New media is a game changer. At its core, social media is about establishing personal connections. But guess what? So is out-of-home.

Frankly, the closer a message is to the street the more “social” it becomes…and the stronger its connectivity with a consumer. Guerilla marketing, street theater, wild posters, if done well, are riveting propaganda and among the strongest weapons in all of marketing. This is why, even as mass media fades in its importance to advertisers, OOH remains relevant, even breakthrough.

Unlike other media, out of home has existed since the beginning of time. From day one, nature provided Earth with numerous signs. The creatures of the Earth read these signs and acted accordingly. The leaves turned color. That meant it was time to build a nest, accumulate stores…mate. The sun itself was a moving billboard, motivating animal migration, feeding habits and other rituals.

It was no different for Man. Signs governed his every move, heralding good tidings and bad. With man’s growing inquisitiveness, signs took on greater and greater meaning, shaping his belief systems and laws. He needed only to look up and the messages were there.

As soon as man began making his own signs, creativity was born. Though primitive, man’s need to create signs was intuitive. It still is. We want others to know who we are. What we want. To believe what we believe. To do things our way. Or else! For centuries, out of home advertising has provided humankind a means to achieve its agenda. For better or for worse.

In 1958, Lady Bird Johnson tried to ban outdoor advertising in the United States. Called the Highway Beautification Act, her aim was to eliminate out of home advertising altogether. Despite her good intentions, the law failed. Your forefathers were too good at lobbying! Frankly, Lady Bird couldn’t stop signs from going up anymore than we could stop making them. Creating signs is ritual, ingrained in our humanity. It is who we are.

Like Mrs. Johnson, I too dream of a beautiful America. But without signs? That’s not possible. Or necessary. I believe signs can be compelling, provocative and beautiful. Frankly, they better be. For what they are covering up often times is.

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