The messages are simple, direct. “Stay home, save lives.” “Wash your hands.” “Avoid touching your eyes, nose & mouth.”
You see them on billboards and digital signage across the country, at doctor’s offices and gas stations. You’d see them at the mall, if we could still go to the mall.
A range of out of home vendors have donated space on their boards for public service announcements (PSAs) and to community groups with important messages during the COVID-19 crisis. It reflects the philanthropic efforts of the industry and a commitment to giving back that’s become more pervasive as technology improves.
Now, you should understand a few things about this practice.
It’s not done entirely because vendors have kind hearts, though we certainly admire their motives. They do get things out of this. A tax writeoff, for one thing, as well as the goodwill of doing something nice during a hard time. And it’s not exactly a burden — advertisers have pulled back on budgets since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so vendors like Lamar Advertising, Clear Channel Outdoor and OUTFRONT aren’t exactly turning away business to post these helpful messages.
Still, it makes us feel good every time we see such coronavirus signs because it’s the industry’s way of giving back. We’re proud to be associated with that.
And it’s not new, either. The recent events prompted us to take a look at philanthropy in out of home advertising, and what we found is pretty fascinating.
Inventory for Nonprofits
The big three billboard vendors account for most of the inventory across the country. Many have programs in local markets that proactively approach nonprofits with offers of free or reduced-price billboards. You know, the ads warning you not to text and drive or support Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Not every nonprofit campaign is discounted or comped, but donating inventory helps vendors look as though their space is in demand — and appearance is not unimportant in OOH, so being nice serves a purposed.
Keep in mind, vendors can also use nonprofit space to their advantage. Sometimes they get cute about it. Back in 2004, Clear Channel got into a tiff with the Houston City Council over billboard space.
The council had issued regulations meant to reduce the number of billboards in the city, but it made an exception for signs advertising nonprofits. Clear Channel took advantage of the loophole by donating tons of space to nonprofits, including churches, so that its signs wouldn’t be taken down.
Lost and Found: Criminals and AMBER Alerts on Billboards
Billboards also can provide a welcome public service by alerting passersby to people to look out for. For instance, shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Lamar donated space in the Boston area to post “wanted” signs for the two suspects.
Since 2008, the Out of Home Advertising Association of America has partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) to carry AMBER Alerts on digital signage. The alerts can be uploaded to targeted localities with one click, giving people identifying information on missing children and possible transportation to watch for. More than 2,000 alerts have been served across the country.
Weather and Billboards: Early Warnings and Ways to Help
In May 2019, 25 tornadoes ripped across five states. One local vendor in Arkansas, Ashby St. Outdoor Advertising, was credited with possibly saving lives by posting alerts. It uses a program that automatically posts hurricane warnings to local billboards based on GPS coordinates. When the National Weather Service issues a threat, digital billboards in the area flash a sign in big letters on a red background saying “Tornado Warning For This Area.”
The warnings are often shared on social media, too, and help raise awareness of impending weather issues.
Billboards can have philanthropic uses after a natural disasters as well. PSAs directed people where to find help after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Harvey in Houston, but the outreach went beyond those immediate surroundings.
The American Red Cross asked markets across the country to run a message requesting donations to benefit affected locations after Harvey — a request made easier by posting the message for digital download on the OAAA website. It took just a few clicks for vendors to put up the creative.
And on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Lamar Advertising posted remembrances and a message of support on digital billboards across the country, honoring those who died and saluting New Orleans for emerging “10 Years Stronger.”
Coronavirus Billboards: Creativity and Crucial Messaging
Billboards are excellent vehicles for delivering information. Studies have found people recall the information on billboards with exceptional clarity. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the message resonates with passersby.
This makes billboards a great way to publicize information about coronavirus and social distancing measures, especially in the early days of the crisis, when people weren’t sure of symptoms and causes of the disease and the government was just beginning to implement quarantine measures.
There are underlying societal issues that arise in times of crisis, too, that can be highlighted. Lamar has donated space for messages from two nonprofits raising awareness of heightened levels of domestic violence during quarantine.
Advertisers Make Special COVID-19 Messaging
Right now, many advertisers are wrestling with whether to change their messaging based on the current crisis. Not acknowledging that life has changed seems disingenuous. But no one wants to be a downer, either.
Some companies are taking a philanthropic tack with their creative. Coca-Cola rolled out messaging on its Times Square billboards that encouraged people to social distance by spacing out the letters in the company’s iconic name. Now, this isn’t philanthropy by vendors, but it does reflect a useful strategy for advertisers — choosing of their own volition to use their billboard space for good. It benefits the company and the people who see those messages.
Sometimes outdoor just provides a space to express gratitude. A few weeks ago, Porsche bought space to thank people in communities helping each other during the crisis.
Billboards are big parts of every community across America. It makes sense to use them for good when our nation faces troubled times. We’ve enjoyed seeing the creative ways this has played out. It’s good for the industry and reminds us, as we get ready to reopen the nation, what binds us all together.