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The Psychology Behind Billboards

2nd of August 2018

We all know the bonuses to advertising using OOH…tapping into the unconscious psychology of a geotargeted group of consumers is a huge one, because your tactically selected audience has minimal control over the information that they digest in their day to day lives.

We’ll admit, at One Agency we class ourselves as out of home geeks. We love finding new ways to tap into the psychology of the consumer to figure out how they like to ingest information; because this goes so far beyond simply showcasing the facts that you consider to be most interesting within your business. Factors like the way that the eye moves across different formats, the colours and the types of images that work best in different environments are determiners of how much traction any outdoor ad generates.

In this blog we’d like to chat to you about some of the factors that we consider to be most interesting when delving into the psychology behind billboard advertisement consumption, particularly, and how best to maximise your potential traction depending on dwell time.

Why billboard advertising actually works

It’s fundamentally important to remember that people don’t like to be advertised to. This is why the most successful advertisement campaigns disguise themselves as experiences; by appealing to some human emotion.

When considering advertising options, brands are often keen to occupy advertising spaces that are pushed to the front of a consumer’s mind – like mobile pop up ads – unknowing that sometimes it’s actually preferable to dominate the space outside of your consumer’s immediate attention. For example, when a consumer is watching a YouTube video with a mandatory 5 second watch time before a skip button appears, the vast majority of times we see that the consumer is watching the countdown to when they can skip the ad, completely ignoring the content that they are being served with.

However, when a consumer is driving to work and they are stuck in a traffic jam, they are likely to read the content displayed on a large billboard voluntarily, for want of amusement. These assertions lead to the inevitable truth that creatives must be manipulated to maximise success with the intricacies of each varying format in mind.

We are by no means asserting that YouTube advertisements are completely ineffective; simply that due care is needed to tailor advertisements to this format to ensure that they optimise people’s attention spans in each format.

For example, this infographic details the factors that contribute to a person’s attention span whilst at the cinema:

Consumers know that when they go to the cinema, they’re going to be served with advertisements – so they’re not a distraction or an annoyance, because they are an accepted part of the experience.

When at the cinema, consumers are embarking upon recreational time, so they’re in a better state of relaxation and happiness. They are waiting to be stimulated emotionally by the film that they’ve just paid to see, so they’re receptive of engaging, sustained and emotional content. For this reason, as well as exceptionally long dwell times, the cinema is the perfect setting for rich, content heavy advertisements that demand focus first, and emotional response second.

By looking at this infographic, it appears as though cinema advertising facilitates the idealised advertisement audience. However, because the cinema is a recreational activity rather than a frequented part of people’s daily routines, it becomes harder to engrain a brand message for any sustained period of time through this format. This is where billboard advertising is unequalled.

If we were to imagine the scope of emotion of a commuter encountering a billboard on this same style of infographic, we could be sure that the results would denote a more tired, passive and uninterested audience.

Surprisingly, though, this actually works in the advertiser’s favour. Billboards become an integral part of a landscape, which results in passers by accepting the information put forward on them as a known truth. In other words, people who pass your advertisement regularly will know what it says without even looking at it…and they won’t forget that it’s there. Psychologically, passers will accept that your advertisement is there in the same way that they accept buildings, landmarks and nature as part of any landscape, but whilst their attention is disinterested, their subconscious is engaged.

By tactically selecting sites that naturally have a large footfall of consumers who’s routines and location suggest that they may fall into your advertising demographic, your business or organisation has the capacity to deliver content with a bespoke call to action that is post applicable for each site – always maintaining synergy with other ads so as to perpetrate the most powerful branding message. This, combined with an analysis of the varying moods, that we know people to be in whilst passing certain sites, allows us an advantage to anticipate how and where different brands are best advertised. For example, when people are in shopping malls, they have disposable income, they are acting recreationally so they are more relaxed and happy, so we could comfortably advertise a luxury brand or experience. When people are waiting for trains, they are likely to be bored and looking for something to keep them stimulated with this disposable time, therefore we would happily serve them with a more emotionally responsive advert, potentially for a government or health campaign, and so on.

How do people see billboards?

Common sense states that too much text on a billboard dissuades anyone from reading any of it, and that colours that blend in with the billboard’s geography won’t be noticed.

But the science of the way in which we interpret billboards goes much further than this. The eye has a predetermined method of perceiving billboards, which must be considered when constructing billboard creatives: The human eye naturally moves across posters in a Z shaped line – which means that creatives that are formulated with content situated at the top, middle and bottom are consumed better than those with content scattered around.

We know that people aren’t likely to read large bodies of information whilst on the go. But often advertisers seem unaware that the ideal word count for billboard content is actually seven words. It can be tempting to try to utilise the space to convey too much information, but this confuses your message and makes the ad unidentifiable.

Ultimately, the purpose of billboard advertising is to engrain your branding into the consciousness of the public, so that when they think of a product or a service, they think of your brand.

The best way to do this is through a succinct brand message, a call to action, and some imagery with an element of depth that allows for a strong and distinct focal point, as this is how the eye is drawn to the creative in the first place.

We’ve compiled a nifty checklist of ways to be sure that your billboard creative is as effective as it can possibly be.


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