1 February 2015
It’s well known that LA is a car town, but it doesn’t really hit you quite what that means until you get there. To someone from Europe well versed in how cities can sprawl – or not – you think “sure, everyone drives in LA, I get it”. But you really don’t. It’s woven so deep into the very fibre of the place’s being, into its soul, that it creeps into everything and everyone.
When I first go to a city I normally try and walk to as many places as I can to try and figure out what makes this place tick; what makes this place different from anywhere else. You can’t do that out the window of a fast moving taxi cab. You miss things, intangibles. New York: the noise. London: old and new, poor and rich, all next to each other. Paris: (to be clichéd, because sometimes clichés are well observed) the attitude.
Don’t try this in Los Angeles.
The first time I went there I did, and what looked on the map to be a 30 minute walk turned out to be a 45 minute walk past street after street of low-rise, widely spaced houses punctuated by never ending cross streets. Every once in a while you would come across a small cluster of stores selling nothing much in particular, the owners seemingly oblivious to the concept of “passing trade”. And of course they are because in LA, it doesn’t really exist – everywhere is a destination you drive to, rather then somewhere you just happen to walk past.
So you inevitably get a hire car, or a surprisingly cheap Uber, and even more inevitably you end up stuck in traffic, staring out the window. Staring at billboards.
They’re everywhere in LA, peppering the landscape as if trees had learnt how to art direct. They’re the best way to advertise to a city that spends an hour in their car every day, half of which is stuck in a jam of one form or another.
“Pffft” I hear some readers say. “Sure billboards might be good in LA (and I liked the background leading up to that bit, really got a sense of the vibe of the place), but obviously digital ads, that can be precisely targeted, are far better”.
This is such prevailing wisdom that I’ve heard it repeated time and time again like it was gospel. People have thought about digital media following the traditional path of a disruptive idea: starting with fear of the new, before whirling around to pretending that this new thing was always a good idea, better then anything else. “I always thought so but none of you would listen.” It’s a viewpoint that’s tricky to reverse back from.
Hence digital advertising is viewed as automatically better then “traditional” advertising – for ages people championed that it was the future, and now we’ve all started believing them. This is not to say, of course, that digital advertising doesn’t have its benefits – such as targeting, or the ability to spend as little or as much as you want, or the ease in which you can test things out and switch things around.
But every medium has their own benefits. TV advertising has a unique power in being able to send a message to a whole group of people at exactly the same moment in time. Billboards can become part of the ambient landscape like nothing else can. Print ads confer all sorts of additional meaning and weight depending on what publication they’re placed in.
There’s another benefit that these medium have that digital doesn’t, and like these above it’s purely psychological – the power of collective experience. With digital ads, the power of targeting is also a weakness that limits the true impact of the message because it’s only you that sees it. The most impact you can have from an advert is to make people talk to each other about it, and with something highly targeted you miss that power, and have to rely on the ad to stand alone by itself.
When I was working on the ad campaign for the first record by The xx we ran a clutch of adverts with just the “x” logo on it, nothing else – no “debut album out now”, no web address, no context. If you didn’t know what it was, the thinking was that you’d ask your friends and one of them would say “oh yeah, that’s for this great new band The xx, you should give them a listen” and that message, direct from one person to another, is far more powerful then anything you could write on a poster.
With digital advertising you get stats and figures, click throughs and impressions but that misses the ultimate point (and hell, you’d never do it for the click throughs). I’m not saying that digital is a waste of time, far from it, but you have to think about what it is you’re trying to say, who you’re saying it to and what’s the best way to say it.
And maybe sometimes that best way is something that catches your eye as you gaze out of the window through the smog on the corner of Sunset and Larrabee just as the lights flick green.
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