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A response to “How Outdoor Advertising Can Deepen Inequality”

Tim Lumb, Director, Outsmart   |   21st August 2020

Apologies for the length of this post. I cite Brandolini's Law as my defence.

You may have seen the hit piece “How Outdoor Advertising Can Deepen Inequality” written by Christine Ro which appeared on BBC Worklife. Let’s get into it.

Christine’s piece is rich in anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist rhetoric – rooted in an assertion that advertising is bad for society because it promotes insecurities, inequalities and therefore harms public health. No consideration is given to the fact that advertising drives economic growth, which benefits society by improving the living standards of everyone. £1 of advertising spend generates £6 for the UK economy. The advertising industry contributes £148bn to the UK economy, which in turn supports a workforce of almost a million people (1). 

Predictably then “How Outdoor Advertising Can Deepen Inequality” is not well-argued. The by-line claims that Out of Home (OOH) advertising is a “public health risk”. An example of the “logic” employed within the piece to support the claim is as follows: 

1.    Cars are advertised on OOH sites. 
2.    OOH sites are placed on major roads. 
3.    Major roads are used by cars. 
4.    Cars cause air pollution. 
5.    Conclusion: OOH advertising is a public health risk. 


As far as fallacious reasoning goes, we are spoilt for choice here: slippery slope fallacy, affirming the consequent fallacy, non-sequitur fallacy. Take your pick. Either way, this is very weak sauce.

Sleight of Hand
Another example of the ‘public health risk' that OOH supposedly menaces society with, is that it carries advertising for ‘less healthy’ food. 

The argument given is encapsulated by the following quote found within the article: “Food advertising influences what kind of food children express preference for. Most food advertising is for less healthy foods. So food advertising in itself contributes to less healthy diets, and, by extension, probably to obesity”.

Two points here, firstly the sleight of hand move to advertising in totality, instead of OOH specifically. Why? Because all the research undertaken on food advertising and children has focused on other media, not OOH. To be clear: different media have different strengths and effects. Taking the findings from research into (e.g.) TV advertising and applying it to OOH advertising is at best erroneous and at worst disingenuous. There is no evidence of a causal link between OOH advertising and childhood obesity. Hence the article is unable to cite any.

Secondly, and more importantly, the use of the word “probably” in the quote is deliberate, because obesity is caused by a range of factors, with advertising (in totality) being among the least of them. (2) The UK Government published extensive data on this in 2019 which showed that an advertising ban of foods high in fat, salt or sugar before 9pm on TV and Online (which, by the way, together account for a far greater proportion of the advertising spend on these products compared to OOH) would reduce a child's calorie intake by a miniscule 1.7 calories per day (3) – that’s the equivalent of half a Smartie. 

Ironically the article itself reaches a similar conclusion where it states: “London has banned posters for junk food across its public transport network in an attempt to curb child obesity (although it’s unclear what effect this has had).” I can confidently assert it has had zero effect, other than to reduce potential advertising income, which helps keep ticket prices affordable for Londoners. But that is a future blog.

The fact is, when it comes to childhood obesity, advertising is not the problem. It is part of the solution. See Outsmart’s https://www.getsmartoutside.org.uk/ initiative to donate unsold OOH advertising space to marketing campaigns that promote healthy lifestyles, nutritional advice or increased physical activity. 

Regrettably, advertising alone is not a silver bullet to the very serious problem of obesity, but it will be most effective when used as part of a wider whole systems approach.


Going Green

The article hints at environmental concerns stemming from OOH advertising. Again, it is unresearched, uninformed assertion. Outdoor media owners have long been transitioning to less environmentally impactful operations, from recycling posters to electric vehicle fleets. Traditional poster sites are increasingly being converted to digital screens (DOOH), requiring no physical production or distribution of advertising. (Yet it is the DOOH screens that groups like Adblock Bristol are trying to prevent!) 

Many major OOH media owners are operating with 100% renewable energy, they are using components which improve the energy efficiency of DOOH screens, as well as efficient lighting for remaining traditional OOH estates (4).

Furthermore, several initiatives that actively benefit local communities are now integral parts of tender processes for municipal contracts. Some notable initiatives include:

• Clear Channel’s “Trees for Cities” partnership – planting trees in urban environments for every new site built, with over 400 planted to date.
• JCDecaux’s Living Walls and Air Quality Monitoring stations – reducing local air pollution (NO2 and Particulate Matter), whilst providing local councils with data on air quality.
• Global’s support of local communities across the UK through the revenues generated from Outdoor advertising on the country’s bus and rail networks.
• Ocean Outdoor’s Ocean for Oceans initiative, working with the Marine Conservation Society to address how the business approaches its relationship with plastic. 


Giving Back

In 2017 Outsmart commissioned PwC to survey the OOH industry and understand where the money goes. Across 2008-17, over £710m was invested into installation and maintaining public infrastructure (bus shelters, phone/wi-fi kiosks, public seating etc). On an annual basis, and including busines rates, public rents, revenue share arrangements and staff/contractor salaries, the OOH industry puts £463m back into the economy – almost 50% of the sector’s revenue. No other media compares. 

Facts aside, there are principals at stake here. In a free society businesses have the right to advertise their wares, and individual citizens are not the helpless, brainless automatons that this article portrays them to be. Individuals make free and informed decisions about their spending choices and pursue whatever they consider to be their ‘good life’ (Christine Ro included!), safe in the knowledge that advertising in the UK, including OOH, is appropriately regulated to ensure it is legal, decent, honest and truthful

Finally, and obviously: OOH media owners do not manufacture the products, nor create the adverts that Christine et al dislike. We merely display them to people that we think might be interested in them. Respectfully, your fight is elsewhere. 

1 Advertising Pays 8, 2019 AA/WARC Expenditure Data, Advertising Association.
2 https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/how-the-world-could-better-fight-obesity#
3 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/786554/advertising-consultation-impact-assessment.pdf
4 Outsmart 2020

"As an industry, I believe, we have forgotten the power of repetition. Effective communication isn't small. It isn't cheap. It isn't once."
"Advertising isn’t supposed to be private. It’s supposed to be overheard, shared, stumbled across and discovered."
"And then there’s advertising’s past. The intrusive, inflexibile and mute billboards. They feel like throwbacks to the old way of doing things. A flat image with an unyielding rule that the consumer can take in no more than eight words (unless they’re Economist readers). How boring. How old school. Until you remember 2015's ‘Shot on iPhone 6’ campaign. Simple, traditional and utterly un-missable pieces of art in the urban landscape."
"Out of Home is the oldest medium of all There’s still huge power in the public message – the power of the public comment. It’s a big thing – it’s why people get married in front of an audience of 150; it gives a public sense of commitment."
"We've chosen to use digital to make everything more efficient...but we've forgotten how to explore and discover. It's a loss of serendipity and we've lost a lot of the humanity. We're becoming very reliant upon digital and the internet to make us incredibly efficient and we're losing out."
"The beauty of OOH is that it can double as a TV screen, a social feed, a camera, a vending machine, a download site, or a purchase point."
"OOH is constantly evolving, and its ability to integrate so brilliantly with new technology is one of its main strengths."
"Media changes, driven by digitisation, have left consumers facing a tyranny of choice—yet OOH is a channel that can still deliver huge audiences, and can increasingly do so in creative and engaging ways."
"The Out of Home sector has been tremendously resilient throughout the recessionary years, showing consistent growth driven by its fundamental benefits. In an ever-fragmenting media landscape, you can still reach pretty much the entire population, all at the same time."
"Out of Home is booming right now: OOH is the most ubiquitous media – you can’t turn the page, change the channel or switch it off, and Out of Home continues to integrate itself brilliantly with other new and innovative technologies."
"Posters decorate the world "
"Speed of change is all around us and no more so than in the rate at which advertising investment in traditional posters is being transitioned to include a far more flexible Out of Home canvas; the digital poster."
"I love OOH because the diversity of opportunities makes it a realistic option for almost any client. Add to this the ever growing possibilities for new innovation and it’s a media channel that is truly exciting to both agencies and clients alike."
"As DOOH becomes more “digital,” it becomes more agile, richer, and better able to play its part in a big idea. As a plugged in medium, DOOH can be the active element in a multi-layered campaign. It can create buzz, break news, invite interaction, and help to drive content and discussions online. Great DOOH campaigns are ones that sit comfortably within the wider brand strategy and capture the imagination."
"By its very nature, Out of Home’s remoteness from the consumer living room, from the office, and from the home computer, has made it a natural bedfellow of mobile marketing."
"OOH inhabits a wonderful space in which we benefit from a rich heritage of memorable, iconic campaigns and a truly exciting future unfolding before us. A broadcast medium that just keeps getting better."
"DOOH is a really interesting storytelling medium, beyond advertising. It allows you to touch and feel and interact in a way no other medium does. That's the real beauty of it, and usually overlooked"
"Show me any brief, for any client and any campaign and I guarantee that OOH will be able to have a justifiable role to play as part of the media solution. That role maybe big or small; local or national, classic, digital or both, large format, small format or anything in between... but it will be justifiable and worthwhile. There isn’t any other medium that can replicate that claim, or indeed come anywhere near doing so."
"London’s very large public transport network carries a great deal of OOH advertising. As a result, London alone has 170,000 advertising sites, more than 40 per cent of the national total. This makes London the most valuable city for OOH advertising in Europe and among the most important in the world."
"Digital OOH networks are multi-sensory and with the development of touch technology things are moving fast. Stimulating the senses more creatively generates social shares, great PR and awards."
"Central London will undergo a transformation and cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds will get even brighter and more connected"
"It makes sense for the most welcomed and least intrusive media to deliver presence for brands interacting through the media"
"OOH remains the flexible canvas for which a guaranteed audience is never too far away"
"OOH may be the oldest medium, yet it has shown remarkable resilience in reinventing itself"
"Smarter brands are contextualising their ad messaging, reaching a target audience when it matters most and can change behaviour"
"Poster sites really are the last true broadcast medium capable of near universal reach"
"Immediacy, targeting and excitement are what DOOH can offer that other media can't - its just very very cool.The opportunities are endless"
"The combination of classic and DOOH should be an intoxicating mix for any marketing director"
"Out of Home is an accountable, measurable and effective media for advertisers"
"Reaching people in the right place, at the right time is still Out of Home’s biggest strength"
"Posters are the purest and most effective form of communication"
"I would advise marketers using OOH not to see a poster as a Wikipedia entry, think of it as a piece of art"
"OOH engages hard to reach audiences on the move with inspiring and innovative communications"
"Using data to plan OOH enhances campaign performance by up to 200%"
"London is the most valuable city for OOH advertising... and among the most important in the world "
"Super premium digital Out of Home is one of the quickest ways to get into the conversation and make your brand famous"
"For a brand to live, it needs to appeal not only to the people who buy it, but also to the people who know about it "
"Media isn’t about the number of impressions you make. Media is about the power of the impression you make."
"In advertising, we have the power to change minds, change beliefs and change the world"
"DOOH offers deeper engagement than other media, more of a story and feedback"