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A Tale of Two Billboards

8 min read.

Aileen McDaid, Director of Digital Planning

by Aileen McDaid, Director of Digital Planning

Spark Foundry

The year is 1994 and a plucky upstart of a digital banner ad boldly asks internet users, ‘Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? – YOU WILL!’ At the same time, its distant cousin, the outdoor billboard, sits stoic and calm without too many tricks up its sleeve. 

Fast forward 26 years, and these distant relatives could be mistaken for twins due to all the striking similarities they now possess. Both media have a range and complexity of specs. There are over 40 sizes of online banner to choose from, but out-of-home (OOH) trumps this with a whopping 84 different formats due to the wide range of standard, digital and ambient displays available.1

In addition to the range challenge, there is a mismatch between perception and reality when it comes to how quickly OOH and digital banner assets can be implemented. There is a perception that anything digital can be implemented immediately; however, the layers of tracking and testing involved today have swollen lead-times from hours into days in some cases, with the likes of YouTube requiring 72 hours for its own copy review process alone.

An additional similarity between these media is that neither OOH nor digital banners have a captive audience. ‘Banner blindness’ emerged as an issue with online advertising less than five years after the introduction of the format. The same can be said of OOH where the audience is literally travelling past the advertisements, often with their attention focused on their smartphones.



For all the similarities that make them complex, there are also similarities that bind these media in their effectiveness. Outdoor is the ultimate location-based medium, but when location-based options became available online through IP and device targeting, this became an effectiveness game changer for digital banners on mobile devices. Proximity targeting created synergies between the two media at this point, while ‘quick response’ (QR) and ‘near field communication’ (NFC) technology brought them closer together.



OOH has always had a major advantage over digital; it is in the physical world and can be held tangibly accountable. But with the advent of digital OOH, the proportion of digitised inventory is expected to increase to 30% of OOH revenue in 2020 in the Republic of Ireland.2 Now that fixed poster sites are starting to be converted to screen-based ad rotation displays, there is a need for these digital OOH units to embrace the same accountability requirements as online advertising.

Website banner ads have been challenged by questionable visibility claims in the past, and, to combat this, viewability is now a standard metric in digital buying. To date, the standard for OOH reporting has been survey-based, so modernisation is needed.



The relaunch of the Joint National Outdoor Research (JNOR) will bring some improvement in the metrics associated with OOH, but other options such as ‘Glimpse’ and ‘Quividi,’ which use live image processing to quantify views, are also available.

There are some examples of impactful uses of this technology in advertising; the most famous being a 2015 campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence in the UK. The campaign was called ‘look at me.’ The poster depicted a woman with a bruised face that actually changed and healed as passers-by stopped and looked at the image. The poster used facial detection technology to note when people paid attention to the ad and gradually altered the image as the number of people increased.

This type of tracking is not only useful in quantifying audience numbers; it can also be used to personalise advertising, and it is this use of data that has caused much debate, because it involves the use of our faces to estimate our age, gender and whether we are happy or sad. This raises obvious ethical concerns which deserve our attention.

The use of image recognition technology in outdoor advertising is enticing for marketers, but we need to exercise caution, which is why the current providers insist it is ‘facial detection’ as opposed to ‘facial recognition’ technology. This is important not just because of basic privacy concerns but because of claims that the cloud-based version of the technology is inherently biased; for instance, it has been shown to be problematic when distinguishing race and gender.3

Naturally, the industry is always looking for the ‘next big thing’ to boost ad revenue and ultimately increase relevance, which in turn reduces waste of ad spend. This is understandable in an uncertain advertising landscape, but regulation of this technology is essential. There is an important distinction between facial detection (no images stored) and facial recognition (images recorded / matched) with the latter requiring greater controls. Even Microsoft supports ‘a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial-recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission.’4

Companies that use image processing with digital OOH claim compliance with GDPR, because no images are recorded. With facial recognition on the other hand we should tread carefully, and this view seems to be growing in Europe. A draft EU paper on the subject proposes a ban on the use of facial recognition in public places for up to five years while policymakers get to grips with the technology.




In the meantime, digital OOH allows for ample opportunity to buy effectively and efficiently via other technological means. There is potential to increase the relevance of advertising through data that can be used dynamically to fuel creative that triggers copy changes to reflect the time of day, day of week, changes in the weather, breaking news, etc.

However, we must not forget that 70% of sites in the Republic of Ireland are non- digital, and these formats will continue to deliver most of the reach and impact in the medium term. There has been continuous investment in upgrading outdoor sites in recent times, including the growth of backlit 48-sheets and the ongoing redevelopment of bus shelters. This means that the medium has never looked better.

The media planner’s job is to advise clients on the best blend of the traditional and the new to achieve the right combination of reach and dynamism. Ultimately however, it is creative bravery and an intricate knowledge of how to use each format that delivers real success. These too are qualities that the online and out-of-home worlds have in common.



1. PML, 2020
2. Ibid
3. The Major Concerns Around Facial Recognition Technology, Forbes, September 2019
4. Facial Recognition Technology: The Need for Public Regulation and Corporate Responsibility, Microsoft, July 2018
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