As an aficionado of good billboards, I took note recently of a better-than-average, out-of-home campaign that Coca Cola is running nationally.

These billboards feature nothing more than a singular lifestyle image—a youthful couple laughing while clutching Coke—and a logo. The photograph is tinted, creating a vague, nostalgic vibe, and an ode to the simpler life, perhaps. And that’s it. Outdoor advertising at its purest.

Not many brands can pull this off. But these billboards succeed because of the immense equity built into the Coke brand, one that will always rank among the most recognizable in the world. To paraphrase John Lennon, Coke is bigger than Jesus. The boards are powerful in their simplicity and purity of message but they work because of the strength of the Coke brand. In an unforgiving medium that requires a strong singular image coupled to the fewest words possible to be effective, this is as good as it gets.

I decided to steal this concept and make it our own.

But can this approach translate to lifestyle and entertainment brands? In Alabama, our Wind Creek Casino & Hotel brand is firmly established in the state, and our logo is recognizable to nearly everyone in the region. Our advertising runs primarily in five local markets, and in each of these cities we benefit from high recall rates of our brand and our tagline, “Find Your Winning Moment.” With the Coke campaign as our inspiration, we challenged our agency to create photography that delivered on our brand promise, leveraging its equity to tell our story. We needed a series of strong lifestyle shots that conveyed our resort experience—imagery that could hold up on its own, requiring as few accompanying words as possible. Our agency, Mobile-based Red Square, hired the Coke photographer, and our in-house creative team conjured up simple, accompanying headlines.

The casino industry relies heavily on its events to drive visitor traffic; well-known entertainers and casino promotions dominate the advertising on the Interstates. If you survey the billboard landscape, it’s difficult to differentiate one casino brand from the next amongst these tactical messages. The billboards invariably become cluttered with dates no one will remember. And if we were to be completely honest here, is the experience really that different from one casino to the next? Not significantly. But if we could invent desire by artistically conveying our experience through great photography, fusing those images with our logo and tagline, perhaps we can break free from the pack. We challenged ourselves to create a campaign that relies heavily on the strength of our brand promise, conveying nothing more than the great experiences we offer our customers. We begin the new year with this campaign, and I look forward to the response.

LOOKING BACK

My commute to work is a 45-minute slog along mostly divided highways and Interstate 65. It’s an easy drive which takes me through two small towns and rural countryside, and the traffic is generally light. But, man, it’s boring. Sure, the landscape is pretty, but once I hit the Interstate I’m surrounded by a forest of loblolly pines and little else. There is virtually no signage or other structures along the twenty-mile stretch of Interstate between Bay Minette and Atmore, Ala. An occasional roadside attraction or a billboard would be a welcome distraction from the rural repetition.

I was thinking about the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 and the impact it must have had on my daily commuting endurance test. By the 1960s, the proliferation of billboards and roadside junk yards that had accumulated along our highways reached a high-water mark of ugliness. The Act was meant to address the blighted roadsides, specifying that some signage be removed, junkyards along the interstates be screened off or relocated and landscaping enhancements added.  Spurred on by the First Lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson decided to take action. The Act was signed into law, although somewhat watered down from its original high-minded attempt to bring visual order to our roadside chaos. Junk yards were now mostly hidden from view. But thanks to the vigorous efforts of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the billboard trade group, billboards, in fact, became larger and, over time, even more plentiful. Standards were put in place and sizes were unified to the benefit of advertisers and outdoor media companies.

With the reinvigorated billboard industry riding on the benefits of the Beautification Act came the visual pollution you would expect. Billboard advertising, when left to the outdoor companies or their advertisers, can be downright hideous. (Why does anyone think that displaying a phone number on a billboard is a good idea?) Even an advertiser fortunate enough to be working with a creative ad agency will still field ugly billboards. There’s a good reason for this. If you’re a young art director or copywriter wanting to make a stand-out impression with your client and gain industry recognition, you’d rather be doing TV commercials or glossy magazine ads—not billboards. Outdoor advertising is not a sexy medium.

I learned this lesson during my brief tenure as creative director at Gannet Outdoor (Now CBS Outdoor) in Los Angeles back in the early 1990s. Los Angeles represents the ultimate market for out-of-home media, a vast roadside canvas where advertising agencies can really flex their creative muscle. But back in the early 1990s, thanks to the big media budgets of the movie studios, the most innovative billboard work was concentrated along the Sunset Strip. Throughout the rest of city (and in most metropolitan markets) billboards were uninspired—nothing more than signage. Agency creative teams were guilty of contributing to the mediocrity. Billboards were mostly repurposed frames of a client’s TV spot or a magazine ad, blown up big. This is not the best use of a medium, one that begs for clarity and simplicity of message, and the results were generally awful.

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

But the industry has evolved since then, and the work has gotten decidedly better in many places. The Obie Award winners, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America’s annual industry recognition, is proof of that. And with the ongoing atomization of broadcast TV and shrinking network audiences, outdoor advertising’s appeal has regained its luster. And now the ubiquity of smart phones provides advertisers with new tools to engage with their audience through outdoor advertising. Call-to-actions can include text-in offers and QR codes, enabling the billboard to become an interactive medium.

So, it is with these inspired thoughts in mind that I look forward to those road trips where I will have a glimpse of the roadside gallery. Unfortunately, there remain advertisers who produce billboard campaigns that veer into the ridiculous. Rather than provoke a dialogue with the viewer, as any good billboard should, many outdoor campaigns would rather just provoke. There are too few Obie award contenders or work that inspires out there. Many billboard placements as just a desperate clamor for attention, to that end, perhaps achieves that goal by annoying the driver. Bad billboards are certainly memorable, in the same way that late night TV commercials are memorable through the sheer force of reputation, quality of content be damned. If you’ve got nothing clever to say, just say it over and over again. Ubiquity has its benefits—just ask President Donald Trump. It’s hard to look away when he’s everywhere.

But let’s take the high road, shall we? I believe we have a moral responsibility as advertisers to recognize that billboards, while residing on private property, are part of the public space. As Rick Robinson, COO of Billups, noted, outdoor advertising exists in the “people’s space” and that space demands our respect. Let’s create the best work we can and contribute our best efforts to the roadside gallery.