With digital ads taking over our lives, it’s easy to start questioning how long other forms of advertising are going to last.
Oh, rest assured: billboards are going nowhere. They are alive, well and getting increasingly creative.
Here’s a scenario: you’re cruising on the highway, pretending to be focused on your driving, blasting some nostalgic hits as loud as it gets. It’s going to take some serious interruption to steal your attention. All of a sudden there it is: an irresistible, overwhelmingly cheesy pizza the size of your car. You *suddenly* remember that you are starving. (Are you really?). Next up you’re looking for an exit number, address, website, coordinates…something! You really do need to get your hands on that pizza. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the magnetic power of a brilliant billboard ad.
Unlike other forms of advertising, billboard ads are competing against truly extreme distractors: speeds by the order of dozens of miles per hour, open (and potentially dangerous) roads, distances that make them illegible, just to name a few. To defeat these challenges, designers have come up with all sorts of rules of thumb and best practices that often result in similar, uninteresting approaches. Truly remarkable unique ads are a somewhat rare find. They masterfully combine legibility, memorability, an eye-catching power.
When one does catch your attention, however, one thing is absolutely true: there are some serious creative lessons to be learned there. I found 50 that will stop you in your tracks. Ready?
01. “Lightbulb” by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for The Economist
Takeaway: The best advertising techniques actively involve their audiences. In this case, bypassers are an essential part of the message.
02. “Bite” by Ogilvy & Mather Jakarta for Formula Toothcare
Takeaway: To reinforce a claim (like “builds strong teeth”), rethink the format and make it part of the message.
03. “Tunnel” by Demner, Merlicek & Bergmann for Oldtimer Restaurants
Takeaway: Intervene location where viewers are not expecting to be reached. Disrupt the scenery with an ad where the audience gets, quite literally, immersed in.
04. “Nose Hair Trimmer” by Saatchi & Saatchi Indonesia for Panasonic
Takeaway: Go beyond the format’s dimensions and let quotidian elements (like electric poles and wires in this case) interact with the ad.
05. “Crying Billboard” by WAX for the Calgary International Film Festival
Takeaway: Bring emotions to life with a treatment that makes them pop out of the paper. This ad brought tears alive with water, but you could think of appealing to other senses. Happiness, for instance, could be enlarged by adding a real laughter sound.
06. “Change” by Leo Burnett for Koleston Naturals
Takeaway: Using negative space creatively can help you break through the advertising clutter.
07. “Chalkboard Menu” by DDB Warsaw for McDonald’s
Takeaway: In an industry where ultra-modern and eye-catching typography reigns, grab your audience’s attention by going retro with hand-lettered elements.
08. “Woman” by BBDO New York for BBC World
Takeaway: Ads don’t always need to be flat. Think laterally and involve otherwise disturbing elements like corners and cracks to enhance your message.
09. “Submerged Billboard” by Fame Adlabs for Day After Tomorrow
Takeaway: Defeat media saturation by sharing your message in an uncluttered, creatively relevant space.
10. “Fresh Salads” by Leo Burnett Chicago for McDonald’s
Takeaway: Take typography a step further and find ways to communicate your message in the letters themselves. If suitable for the message, think about ways in which your ad can evolve over time. This ad reinforces the idea of “freshness” precisely by letting viewers in on a genuine growth process.
11. “Red Wall” by Being France for Jameson
Takeaway: Show what you mean. If your brand is all about street, down-to-earth values, embrace a more casual, unexpected environment to display your billboard. Perhaps prime, expensive space is not the best way to go.
12. “Penny Billboard” for Chevrolet Aveo
Takeaway: Let users interact with your ad in meaningful ways. While freebies (or free money) won’t always be possible, there are many creative ways to involve your audience.
13. “Giant Chocolate Billboard” for Cadbury
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to escape pixel-perfection. Rather than displaying an immaculate image of the product (like a sealed chocolate bar), play with the idea of showing the product in use. Even if that means tearing your packaging apart, as in this case.
14. “Giant Egg” by Leo Burnett Chicago for McDonald’s
Takeaway: Ads don’t need to be static, or flat, or even paper-based. Sometimes they can be an egg that hatches.
15. “Self-destruct” by Colenso BBDO for Deadline Couriers
Takeaway: Think about ways to allow the ad to evolve with your message. Are you displaying a countdown? Self-destruction is more than appropriate.
16. “Realty Boxes” by MNFX for Edina Realty
Takeaway: Even if you’re going the traditional route with a horizontal billboard space, you can always play with dimension to catch some additional attention. Where users expect another flat board, provide a 3D experience that leaves them wondering what the brand is all about.
17. “Look at Me” by WCRS for Women’s Aid
Takeaway: Interactive ads are taking over. This example shows that involving your audience with a digital ad can be a powerful strategy to reinforce a message.
18. “Taste It” by Ogilvy & Mather New York for Coca Cola
Takeaway: Combine outdoor advertising and sampling in a defiant format.
19. “Snow Grafitti” by Lapiz for Mexico Tourism Board
Takeaway: Effective ads capture attention wherever our needs are most active. If there’s a huge snowstorm, chances are high that our desire to fly somewhere warm are active as ever.
20. “Oreo Eclipse” for Oreo
Takeaway: Let your brand’s advertising interact with current events. If an eclipse is garnering some major public attention, join the buzz and give your audience something else to talk about. This is true for natural phenomena as well as city-wide activities, holidays and other major events.
21. “Disneyland” for Alaska Airlines
Takeaway: The most creative forms of outdoor advertising take a compelling message (like Alaska Airlines can take you to Disney) and amplify it in an unexpected format (like covering up an entire plane).
22. “Assembly Fail – Shelf” by Thjnk Germany for Ikea
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid of smart mind games. This easy puzzle doesn’t sacrifice viewers’ comprehension and grabs their attention with a risky format that perfectly embodies the message here: it can be hard to put together IKEA furniture on your own. Hence, call us.
23. “Empower LGTB Youth” for Hetrick-Martin Institute and American Eagle
Takeaway: Some of the best design concepts emerge when two brands partner up for a common goal. American Eagle and the Hetrick-Martin institute share a common audience, and it made sense to create a campaign that addresses one of that demographic’s largest issues.
24. “Probably The Best” by Fold7 and Mission Media for Carlsberg
Takeaway: Don’t feel the need to fill up every single pixel in your design. Instead, leave some white space and set the stage to feature a strong design concept, front and center.
25. “McMuffin” by Cossette for McDonald’s
Takeaway: Positioning a new line of products/services that you are not well known for (like breakfast for McDonald’s) can take some serious creative effort. To facilitate consumer learning, try to actually demonstrate these changes with a disruptive lesson that sticks in your audience’s minds. It’s hard to forget that McDonald’s serves breakfast when that McMuffin literally rose with the sun on the highway.
26. “Magic Mop” by Ig2 for The Quebec City Magic Festival
Takeaway: If you’re selling magic, bring some of it to your advertising. When it comes down to eye-catching techniques, it doesn’t get any better than visual illusions.
27. “Life is Better With Cake” by JWT London for Mr. Kipling
Takeaway: One thing is to combine sampling and outdoor advertising, and something else is to let people in on your production process. While hanging over 13,000 cupcakes is a pretty impressive move, the fact that a professional artist is icing them directly onto the board reinforces the brand’s claim that they create “exceedingly good cakes”.
28. “Story of the Open” by DDB New York for the U.S. Open
Takeaway: When your advertising becomes a living storytelling device, you can expect the audience to look forward to checking it out again. And that’s already more than we can say of 99.9% of billboard ads.
29. “Upside Down Apartment” by Ubi Bene for Ikea
Takeaway: Playing with perception and defying conventions will always be a quick route to generating interest. Even moreso if your brand champions creativity, inspiration and innovation.
30. “Clock Billboard” by Bernstein-Rein for McDonald’s
Takeaway: Sometimes ads have a double function that renders them particularly useful for viewers. If that function is universally appealing, you might even be able to attract an audience that wouldn’t be interested in your brand otherwise. This one is a clock, and I haven’t met someone not interested in knowing what time it is yet.
31. “Bic Razor” by TBWA UK for Bic
Takeaway: Explore ways in which the product can interact with the environment to portray it’s key value proposition. Go a step further and think figuratively: while we would never use a razor to cut grass, this brand definitely made a point that this one is as sharp as they get– and that’s a need we can connect with.
32. “Burnout” by Team Detroit for Ford Motor Company
Takeaway: If your space is crowded (like the auto industry), it’s particularly important to co-create innovative concepts with different disciplines (outside of design) like engineering, robotics and architecture.
33. “Clean Air” by Lead Pencil Studio for the U.S. Government
Takeaway: Sometimes what surrounds the ad is more important than what’s in the ad. Exercise your lateral thinking skills to bring that message to life.
34. “Trust In Your Hands” by Y&R Chicago for Craftsman
Takeaway: While everyone else focuses on the actual art board (30% of the space, at most), think about ways to take advantage of the full structure holding your advertising. Get creative and find the relevant approvals to get more bang for your buck.
35. “You Made It” by Tony Godzik for The Detroiter Travel Center
Takeaway: Strong design concepts can also be simple. Transforming a formal symbol like the bathroom graphic to reflect more genuine human needs (like, “I need to pee NOW”) can be both eye-catching and hilarious.
36. “Cleans Pores, Fights Pimples” by Mike Sicam for Pond’s
Takeaway: Sometimes the best way to activate a need (“I need a facial scrub”) is to use some empathy and let viewers identify themselves in your design. Case in point: raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to cover up your entire face because of a pimple. 🙋
37. “Get Back To Normal” by JWT Toronto for Tylenol
Takeaway: Hyperbole is a dangerously useful term for designers. Used incorrectly, it can strike as annoying and over the top. Used properly, it’s the door to persuasion heaven. Play with a little exaggeration and see where it takes you.
38. “Bridge Jump” by BBDO Düsseldorf for smart BRABUS
Takeaway: Spectacular is a tough creative brief to deliver on. When you/your clients want nothing less than that, look around for different mediums that offer movement and impact.
39. “When You Don’t Know Where to Turn” by Cactus for the Colorado Department of Human Services
Takeaway: Before you get fancy with fonts and layout, think about typography’s actual role in your design and how it can (in and of itself) enact an entire concept.
40. “Androidify” by Google Creative Lab for Google
Takeaway: Explore the limits of what is possible with digital. When an ad offers to make a cartoon out of you, and suddenly feature you as a character in the middle of a prime location, you go for it.
41. “The Slide” by Walz Tetrick for The Kansas City Royals
Takeaway: Find the core value that you are trying to communicate and ask yourself: how can I show this without saying it?
42. “The Naked Cowboy Changed His Underwear” by CP+B for Fruit of the Loom
Takeaway: Sometimes outdoor designs and guerrilla marketing can work together to create a true performance.
43. “Sticky Notes” by Kinetic for Mazda
Takeaway: Our first thought when trying to sell a product is to add a carefully Photoshopped image of it. Escape normal and let your audience get a taste of the process that led to that amazing product you are trying to sell.
44. “Luna Corona” by Cramer-Krasselt for Corona
Takeaway: Not even the moon is too far for a solid creative concept. While selling these kinds of ideas to your team might be hard (they can be very expensive), the memorability and virality of an ad like this are compelling long term gains for any brand. Great for positioning in new markets.
45. “Your World Kitchen” by TDA_Boulder for Noodles & Company
Takeaway: The witty/smartass element will always bring a special touch to design. Looking at an ad like this one can’t help but wonder: what if all of these cars were American? A brand that takes this risk, and displays such confidence in its creative voice is completely deserving of my time (and, possibly, my money).
46. “Reveal Candice’s Secret” by Viktor Angwald for Victoria’s Secret
Takeaway: The radical feminist that I am, I thought I couldn’t find one valuable takeaway in this otherwise highly objectifying ad. I did, however, spot something worth replicating: the curiosity gap. Offer a piece of missing information and watch people interact with your ad in novel ways.
47. “Use Only What You Need” for Denver Water
Takeaway: If you mean to say that people should use only what they need, go ahead and challenge yourself to use only what you need. When messages call for simplicity, set the example first.
48. “Strong Tape” by Euro RSCG for Penline Stationery
Takeaway: What if the product you are advertising could actually have a utilitarian function for the ad? Tape, paint, paper, metal, frames, inks. Consider how the ad could become a living sample of your quality.
49. “Our Ingredients Are Better” by Chipotle Mexican Grill
Takeaway: Contrast can go a long way. By placing more prominent texts to others that blended with the background, Chipotle invited viewers to quickly skim to unveil an important message.
50. “#Colourblocking” by Stackla and Ocean Outdoor for Topshop
Takeaway: Real-time is the next frontier for billboard ads, and brands are coming up with innovative ways to bring the trend to life. If you are working with a product/service that gets a lot of user generated content (UGC) consider how you can bring those inputs into your design.