“I can’t read that #$/*&!# billboard!” or What happened to advertising art direction?


Have you noticed — then again, who has the time or cares to look at billboards nowadays — that contemporary art directors at ad agencies seem to have no sense whatsoever on how to lay out a billboard that a motorist or even a fraking pedestrian can read?

Billboards used to be a wonderful opportunity to express oneself large! Now they seem like the red-headed-stepchildren of the Web 2.0 age; they’re barely remembered and when they are they’re clearly copied and pasted. The result is layouts that, even though they may measure 30″ x 70″ are unreadable.

There’s a great example on 101 heading north in the heart of San Francisco. It’s on one of those rooftops in the design showcase area of Townsend. It’s a Stella Artois billboard and the concept is a metro sexual man and a glamorous runway model/socialite are sitting face-to-face at a small (restaurant?) table in a white photo studio (in other words, they’re in a limbo world of white, but you get the picture).

He’s gazing lovingly at her, or something, and she’s holding a glass of Stella Artois.

The headline,… wait for it…, is… illegible. Why? Because it’s so damn small!

If you’re a passenger, not driving, and crane your neck to follow the board as you pass it, it reads “A thing of beauty” (or something like that). By the way, this is not good advertising just because I remembered it and I’m writing about it.

The concept is lame. As my advertising teacher used to say, it’s a horse-laugh. It’s a guffaw concept. “Oh, I get it! He’s gazing at the beer!!!” Second, it takes such a straight-ahead approach to the concept, including a clearly gorgeous woman on the opposite end of the interaction, that there’s no surprise.

The ad would be markedly better if they had posed an ancient “bag lady,” holding the beer, opposite the metro sexual dude with the same headline. Then at least there would be some conceptual dissonance and interest.

But it’s still an easy concept in that it ultimately only says that “Stella Artois is good!” Duh!

So, it doesn’t help that you can’t read it.

I have lots of thoughts as to why art directors can’t art direct billboards nowadays, the most obvious being that they’re designing them on their iPods at Burning Man. But that’s it for now.