The attention economy: Paul White’s take on the new era of outdoor advertising

paul white outdoor advertising

They say a billboard must be instantly consumable within a couple of seconds, otherwise it’s a total waste of time and money. David Ogilvy is largely attributed with the genesis of the idea and not too many people would argue. They also say billboards shouldn’t have more than seven words and an arresting picture and they’re generally viewed from 100 to 500 feet away by people in motion. But in recent years, a more interactive form of billboard has sprung up that flouts the rules.

Deadline Couriers and Colenso BBDO did an exploding billboard that showed a countdown to self-destruction. Pascall and DDB erected a giant fruit that would eventually burst (‘when will the Fruit Burst’), inviting people to guess when it would pop. And Rodney District Council staged a disturbing head-on crash scene in Matakana followed by a billboard asking drivers if a crash was the only thing that would slow them down.

The changes prompted AUT lecturer and former ad man Paul White to investigate the assumptions around the recognisability of the medium in his MPhil thesis Getting attention, keeping attention and measuring attention in the age of information overload: billboard and poster advertising in the 21st century. White wanted to know if billboards in an age of information overload would simply be drowned by the ever-increasing communications noise around them.

“I wanted to know if something that’s only ever been expected to take up a few seconds of somebody’s time would be swamped or if it could become something that can engage people for more time than it’s traditionally been expected to,” he says.

White had read an article in Wired by Michael Goldhaber, who claimed the currency of the New Economy would be attention, rather than money. “In which case, if billboards couldn’t engage people for more than two or three seconds they would arguably become less valuable, wouldn’t they?”

White used the grammar of visual design to establish how traditional billboards work, as well as employing a field of social semiotics known as multimodal discourse analysis.

“That’s not as frightening as it sounds – it’s about trying to understand what actually happens when people interact with each other, with technology, with any form of communication.” 

He found that, far from being restricted to an interaction that lasted only a couple of seconds, people engaged with the ‘new’ form of out-of-home media for anywhere from 30 seconds to as long as eight days.

“We don’t have to worry about society developing some mythical form of attention deficit disorder, because communicating messages via posters and billboards over as short a time as possible is not a pre-requisite to successful communication in an age of information overload. Most importantly, it’s not about billboards versus digital or social media or whatever being more effective. New communications technologies associated with the age of information overload can and do transform posters and billboards as communication means in lots of ways.”

The new method can affect depth and quality of attention and affect the design of out-of-home. And one of the biggest changes is that, due to new communications technologies, people don’t actually need to be anywhere near the actual billboard to get the message.

White says it hasn’t been hard to challenge the assumptions he used as a starting point when talking to creative people.

“They lead the way,” he says. “New students, though, are like clients – they want everything to have a formula that works so they know how to do things. But really communicating with people, having a conversation, as we like to say, doesn’t work like that. It never has and it never will.”

The ‘new’ billboard

Deadline Couriers ‘exploding billboard’ by Colenso BBDO


Pascall ‘when will the Fruit Burst’ by DDB


Rodney District Council ‘road safety’ by Saatchi & Saatchi


NZ Army ‘hidden soldier’ by Saatchi & Saatchi


NCDV UK ‘drag him away’


  • This story was originally published in Idealog #43, page 67

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