Ad Lib

My friend Greg Garcia, who is a bona fide advertising guru, has a piece of advice for the ad agencies and advertisers responsible for the outdoor signs that have transformed the major thoroughfares in Metro Manila, particularly EDSA, into a virtual billboard jungle. His advice: Billboards are not print ads.
In case the creative directors, art directors, advertising managers and marketing managers who create the outdoor signs don’t get Greg’s point, billboards are for distance and quickie viewing, which doesn’t allow enough time to read and appreciate the clever copy and the avant garde graphic designs.
For some reason, today’s graphic designers seem reluctant to show off the advertiser’s brand name and logo for the motorists and pedestrians to see and recall. They seem to forget who’s footing the bill. They seem to think that the brand IDs get in the way of the design and thus deserve to be consigned to the lower right hand corner of the layout, to be properly inconspicuous and unobtrusive.
At any rate, to go back to the subject of clever ad copy and avant garde graphic designs, they may be best appreciated in the context of a print ad. Scanning the morning paper while having a cup of coffee, a reader can give more than a cursory glance at an ad, assuming that it says something of interest. Even then, a lot of copy may be presuming too much on the attention span of a harried commuter, who is probably more intent on gulping down that breakfast before plunging into the traffic bedlam of the metropolis. But, at least, a print ad allows more exposure than a billboard does on the highway.
Aha! Manila’s marketing geniuses may counter: On EDSA, motorists are exposed to billboards for a much longer time than they are to print ads, whether they like it or not, because of the traffic. In fact, EDSA traffic — also known as carmaggedon — may be the main reason why that stretch probably has more outdoor advertising signs than any equivalent piece of real estate in such places as Tokyo, Hong Kong, Times Square, and the Las Vegas strip.
There may, admittedly, be some sense in that argument, if exposure were the sole or prime objective of advertising. The fact, however, is that the principal function of advertising is “to make a sale” or “para makabenta” (to quote mischievous colleagues who like to pun my surname).
Exposure is just one step in the process whose objective is to make a sale or create demand. Thus, an ad must generate brand awareness and stimulate interest. And then achieve comprehension. And then gain recall, And then, hopefully, trigger action — meaning the act of buying or consuming.
Mind you, I really think that the visual cacophony (sorry for the mixed metaphor) of brands, colors, and messages, create an exciting and art nouveau ambience. And the beautiful women who invariably dominate the billboards are a pleasurable sight to behold.
In such a case, to paraphrase media savant Marshall Mcluhan, the medium is the message — that is, if the message intended to be delivered is that Metro Manila is a modern metropolis, exciting and dazzling like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manhattan, and Las Vegas, populated by beautiful creatures.
However, I seriously doubt that this is the main objective of the companies that are paying millions for the billboards. I think the advertisers are more interested in selling their merchandise and their services, than in promoting Manila and its beauties.
I can’t imagine the marketing manager of any of these advertised brands telling the company CEO that sales goals may not have been met by the outdoor campaign but, boy, is it doing wonders for the image of the Philippines as a paradise for prospective brides!
Frankly, the use of beautiful models as mnemonic devices makes sense only if they call attention to the brands. Otherwise, these lovely main illustrations are really a distraction. They are also a poor excuse for advertising creativity — or, rather, for lack of creativity.
According to reports, the Philippine outdoor advertising industry accounts for P5 to P6 billion in terms of expenditures and thus contributes significantly to the economy. I wonder, though, how much the billboards on EDSA and other traffic-beleaguered thoroughfares are contributing to the sales of the brands they purportedly promote.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the return on outdoor advertising investments is such that the visual confusion is worthwhile for the dozens of advertisers that crowd every available space along EDSA, particularly in the vicinity of the Guadalupe Bridge.
On a recent drive up EDSA, while moving at a turtle’s pace, I asked my companions in the car what brands they recalled being advertised. They had difficulty remembering the brands, couldn’t recall the messages, and were, frankly, not in a buying mood anyway, because of the infernal traffic. In other words, it was not a positive selling environment.
Some of my companions did make an effort to identify the brands and recall the messages. However, they simply succeeded in confusing them with one another in a mixed-up and incoherent manner. It reminded me of “The Billboard Song,” a spoof by the comic duo, Homer and Jethro, that went this way:

“While I was walking down the street, the billboards caught my eye.

The advertisements written there would make you laugh and cry.

The signs were torn and tattered from the storm the night before,

And as I read the things they said, well this is what I saw.

“Smoke Coca-Cola cigarettes, drink Wrigley’s Spearmint Beer;

Ken-L Ration Dog Food makes your wife’s complexion clear;

Chew chocolate-covered mothballs, they always satisfy;

Brush your teeth with Lifebuoy soap and watch the suds go by.

“As I recovered from the shock, I went upon my way.

I’d gone no farther than a block when there to my dismay;

Another billboard caught my eye, just like the ones before.

The wind and rain had done its work and this is what I saw.

“Take your next vacation in a brand-new Frigidaire;

Learn to play the piano in your winter underwear;

And Symonize your baby with a Hershey candy bar;

What a difference Drano makes on your fav’rite movie star.

“Doctors say that babies shouldn’t smoke till they are three;

People over 35 take a bath in Lipton Tea.

You can make this country a better place today.

Just buy a record of this song and throw it far away!”

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.