I don’t drive too much anymore. I hate traffic and I hate tailgaters, so I avoid freeways as much as possible. I find that nine times out of 10, a combination of CalTrain and Lyft get me exactly where I want to go, stress-free.
Whenever I do drive, though, I notice one thing, and it’s not the little old lady doing 35 in front of me or the venture capitalist yakking on the Bluetooth in his Tesla.
It’s the billboards.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but why the hell do companies spend thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars on out-of-home space, just to run terrible work in them?
They’re glad to pay for the media, but the creative is a complete afterthought. They’d rather save a few hundred bucks by hiring their cousin, or an intern who’s still a freshman in art school.
This is the most egregious case in history of being penny-wise and dollar-stupid.
What’s wrong with these billboards? Everything! For a start, many of them break the seven-word rule, which says billboard copy should never be long enough to cause an accident.
Then there are cheesy stock photos, copy that insults your intelligence, and “concepts” with no freshness or impact.
Throw in horrendous typography and color, and you’ve got an easy way to pour a fortune down the drain. All because the person in charge cheaped out on art direction and copywriting.
One thing you see all the time, just for example, is a headline set in type with a particular word crossed out and a replacement word “scribbled” above it. This is what passes for wit in Silicon Valley. I swear, a different pre-IPO startup does this every year and they all think it’s the most brilliant thing they ever heard of. This is because they thought it up in their incubator office at two in the morning when they were high on Red Bull and White Claw, which when mixed together make some kind of pink mythological monster that makes you write crappy billboards.
Then there are the city namecheck billboards, which think they’re cool because they mention something local like Karl the Fog or the Niners. Get out of my face with that stuff. I might be half asleep but I do remember where I live! Plus, you’re not giving me a clue what your new SaaS company does.
Bus shelter boards are bad too. These are billboards’ ugly stepchildren. They have all the same problems, plus they often include body copy of all things. News flash: Most of the people who see your bus shelter are driving by at 40 mph on their way to work. They’re not sitting there waiting for the bus and reading your body copy.
If I sound angry about all of this, it’s because some of the money used to pay for all that expensive media space should be going into the pockets of writers and art directors. That it isn’t, shows every day. These poorly crafted billboards are a hideous blight on the freeway landscape, and they don’t succeed in selling their companies to anyone except their own executive teams and a handful of Sand Hill Road venture capitalists. But maybe that’s exactly the point.
Dave Dumanis is a creative director, copywriter, and 25-year veteran of San Francisco Bay Area marketing and advertising.